Party Leadership Transitions and China’s Relations with North Korea

By | January 06, 2012 | No Comments

What impact do the inner-Party workings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have on the formation and execution of China’s North Korea policy? This question forms the basis of the following essay by SinoNK’s Analyst for Chinese Geostrategy, Nicholas Miller.  Miller is presently a postgraduate student at the Bush School at Texas A & M and the author of an M.A. thesis on questions surrounding the upcoming October 2012 leadership transition in Beijing.  His work on leadership transition in both the PRC and in Pyongyang (surrounding Kim Jong Un) has previously appeared at The Diplomat. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Party Leadership Transitions and China’s Relations with North Korea

by Nicholas Miller

As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) organizes its leadership transition, set to occur during the 18th Party Congress in the autumn of 2012, it remains relatively clear that Xi Jinping will become the heir apparent to Hu Jintao as the next General Secretary, resulting in the likely continuation of past policies of providing support to North Korea to ensure stability as Kim Jong Un continues to consolidate his power. It has been in China’s strategic interest to maintain the status quo for the Korean peninsula, as the Chinese government fears that instability would lead to an increase in North Korean refugees flows into China, the spread of loose North Korean nuclear weapons. Although the idea remains open to debate, China still does not want to lose North Korea as a “buffer zone” protecting it from direct exposure to US troops stationed in South Korea. The CCP already has numerous areas of concern, both foreign and domestic, and preventing any signs of instability within North Korea during this critical time period would likely remain a high priority for the Chinese leadership.

CCP Institutions and Actors  |  The key actors that are responsible for shaping China’s policy towards North Korea are the International Liaison Development (ILD), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  The ILD facilitates China’s relations with North Korea’s Workers’ Party and develops its policy towards North Korea. The MFA implements China’s policies. The PLA manages the national security threat that a North Korean collapse would have for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and coordinates military strategies and dialogues with Korean People’s Army (KPA).[1] Some of China’s key policymakers on North Korea are Dai Bingguo [戴秉国], the State Councilor of the PRC, and Wang Jiarui [王家瑞], who serves concurrently as the Minister of the International Department of the Central Committee of the CPC and head of the ILD.  Compounding the complexity of these bureaucratic interactions are reports that Wang Jiarui, eight year’s Dai’s junior, is in fact angling for Dai Bingguo’s position in the coming year.

Dai Bingguo, left, with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, September 18, 2009 — The tall gentleman on the right is the then-PRC Ambassador to the DPRK, Liu Xiaoming 刘晓明, presently PRC Ambassador in London

The Question of Consensus  |  Externally, China’s policy of support towards North Korea remains unchanged, but behind the scenes there is growing difficulty in achieving consensus.[2] As consensus is needed to maintain unity within the CCP, the North Korean impasse has lead to deadlocks within the decision-making process. One of the more notable instances was after the sinking of the Cheonan in April 2010: China’s leadership did not know how to react to the situation, and waited several days before commenting on the international investigation conclusion.[3] It is notable that Wang Jiarui and others supported the military’s stance that North Korea had legitimate concerns over its security and that it was not in China’s place to condemn an ally; on the other hand, some civilian leaders reportedly believed that China could not stand North Korea’s actions against South Korea.[4] Former Vice Foreign Minister Yang Wenchang has stated that China’s influence over North Korea is not as strong as Western analysts and policymakers believe that China’s use of incentives to influence North Korea has not worked.[5] Gordon Chang’s arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, the Cheonan case would appear to bear this out.

Amongst China’s North Korea analysts, there seems to be a continued debate over how China should react and whether or not China should enforce sanctions on North Korea. Zhang Liangui, a scholar at the Central Party School and visible North Korea commentator, remarked that North Korea’s nuclear testing further strains China’s relationship with the DPRK and “offends the core interests of China.”[6] Thus, while it remains unlikely that there will be any massive shifts in China’s policies towards North Korea in the short term, there has been growing trend over the years of more inner-Party and inner-elite debate of whether sanctions or other harsher methods will need to be used to keep North Korea in line as China works to bring North Korea back to the Six Party talks.

On Contradiction |  China’s policies of propping up North Korea to curb its actions seem to be at odds with one another; no Chinese state institution has been unable to to dissuade North Korea from ending its pursuit of its nuclear enrichment program or long-range missile development. Both the nuclear and the missile issues, ultimately, threaten China’s national security interest as they could spark an arms race with Japan and South Korea. Frustration at this situation was evident in the remarks of Yan Xuetong at Tsinghua University that it was North Korea’s own nuclear program that had worsened the crisis in the Korean peninsula and not the result of United States foreign policy actions towards North Korea.[7]

Wang Jiarui, Minister of the International Department of the CCP, with Madeline Albright, former US Secretary of State; photo courtesy East-West Institute

The Chinese elites recognize that historical relationship between North Korea and China died with Kim Il Sung in 1994. As China sought to work with the international community and adopt economic reforms to survive, North Korea chose to remain unyielding in its principles of how Marxism should operate in Korea, further indicating that it would not bow to the pressures of the international community. At a speech to the Dallas World Affairs Council on December 5, 2011, Minister Wang Jiarui faced a question by the present author about China’s relationship with North Korea.  Wang replied that China is unable to dictate how North Korea should act. Moreover, the Minister argued, in spite of the fact that China has shown Kim Jong Il the benefits of opening up the economy via his multiple visits to China and indicated the prosperity that Chinese-style reforms would bring, it was ultimately the decision of North Korea to decide its own direction.[8]


[1] Linda Jackobson and Dean Knox, “New Foreign Policy Actors in China,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Policy Paper No. 26, 2010, pp. 4-12.

[2] Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, “Who Shapes China’s North Korea’s Foreign Policy,” The Korea Times, May 19, 2011.

[3] Jackobson and Knox, p. 17.

[4] Jackobson and Knox, p. 18.

[5] Scott Snyder and See-won Byum, “Pyongyang Tests Beijing’s Patience,” Comparative Connections, July 2009, p. 3.

[6] Snyder and Byum, p.  3.

[7] Gregory J. Moore, “How North Korea Threatens China’s Interests: Understanding Chinese ‘duplicity’ on the North Korean Nuclear Issue,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 8, 2008, p. 3.

[8] Wang Jiarui, “China and the United States – Building a Mutually Beneficial Trade and Economic Relationship,” Dallas World Affairs Council, Rosewood Crescent Hotel, December 5, 2011.

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