Stakeholder Spotlight: Zhou Yongkang, North Korea, and the Ministry of Public Security

By | September 04, 2012 | 2 Comments

Zhou Yongkang in Public Security Gear | Image via Joël Legendre-Koizumi

Zhou Yongkang is a skilled, feared and respected force in China.  He is one of nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) in China. He keeps a low profile yet oversees an empire within the Kingdom – the state security apparatus – affording a unique and direct relationship to North Korea. He has teamed up with one of his underlings to create a formidable duo as liaisons for domestic security relations with North Korea, a powerful role with wide-ranging implications.  Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, fresh from a year spent at Beijing University in the study of China’s North Korea policy, analyzes the linkage.  In a future post, Nathan will discuss the impact of the rumored downsizing of the PSC from nine to seven members on the role of the Ministry of Public Security in Sino-North Korean relations, Meng Jianzhu’s future as China’s interlocutor to the North, and who could possibly take his place. – Roger Cavazos, Coordinator

 Stakeholder Spotlight: Ministry of Public Security

by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga

Most discussions of Chinese stakeholders in the Sino-North Korean relationship start and end with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and International Liaison Department (ILD). More detailed analyses might venture to include leaders in the northeastern provinces of Liaoning and Jilin, the Ministry of Commerce, and, if feeling edgy, maybe even hyper-nationalistic netizens (Chinese internet users) merit mention. Narrowing in on one of the backroom players that no one likes to talk about in polite company, this post will shine a light on the dark corner of China’s North Korea policy—the Ministry of Public Security (MPS/公安部).

Meng Jianzhu and Zhou Yongkang: Kim Jong-un’s Top Supporters | The MPS has been the Chinese stakeholder most directly responsible for conveying China’s support for the North’s succession process from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member Zhou Yongkang, Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Political and Legislative Committee and responsible for overseeing the MPS, represented China during an October 2010 military parade in Pyongyang to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the Korean Workers Party (KWP).

Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang watches the military parade in Pyongyang celebrating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party in October 2010. On his right, Kim Jong-un salutes in his first public appearance. | Photo courtesy Forbes.

More importantly, the parade was the first public appearance of Kim Jong-un, now successor to his late father, and Zhou’s appearance was China’s first public sign of support for the succession.[1] Zhou also presented Kim Jong-il with a peach, symbolizing Zhou’s wish for Kim’s long life. This was taken as a sign of support for the elder Kim.[2]

Highlighting the MPS’s direct role in the North Korean succession, Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu made the first public comments by a Chinese government official endorsing the North’s succession plans in February 2011 when he said that China “[hailed] the successful solution of the issue of succession to the Korean revolution.”[3]

This represents a stark departure for China from its previous stance on North Korean succession. In 1974, Mao Zedong refused to endorse the first hereditary succession in the communist world from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il, leaving the Kim family to enter into a political fight over the rest of the decade to secure the succession on their own. Deng Xiaoping finally approved the succession in 1982 after Kim Il-sung pleaded on a trip to Deng’s home province of Sichuan. A former MFA official asserted that Mao’s rejection of Kim Jong-il forever left him indignant towards China, evident in that despite Kim Il-sung’s assurances that his son would return to China frequently like his father, the younger Kim took over a decade to return to China again. [4] China appears to have learned its lesson for North Korean successions.  China’s support for the second Kim succession has been very quick and public.

Zhou and Meng have frequently worked in tandem on the North Korea relationship, most recently meeting with North Korean Politburo member and National Defense Commission Ri Myong-su during his visit to Beijing in July 2012. Most importantly, Ri is also Minister of Public Security for North Korea. This reflects the special relationship the MPS, and Zhou, have developed with North Korea and the value the Chinese leadership places in this connection with the North.

Chinese Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu meets with North Korean Minister of Public Security Ri Myong-su. | Photo courtesy Xinhua.

Lips, Teeth, and Chains: Security Cooperation | The MPS appears to have a working relationship with its counterparts in North Korea, which is likely why it was tasked with the role of publicly supporting the succession. In July 2012, Meng Jianzhu said “the communication and cooperation between the two ministries have made great contributions to the two countries’ stability and safety.” He continued, “the two countries have strengthened cooperation on law enforcement since the two sides signed agreements on law enforcement last year [2011]. China hopes to further strengthen exchanges to promote bilateral cooperation in a pragmatic and mutually beneficial way.”[5]

Ri Myong Su responded, “the DPRK attaches great importance to developing cooperative relations with China’s Public Security Ministry and is willing to enhance pragmatic cooperation.”[6] Of note, China has been linked to selling riot gear to North Korea, though these rumors cannot be confirmed nor linked to the MPS.[7] However, the sale would reinforce the working relationship as described by the two Ministers.

Given the distrust between the two countries, if the comments by Meng and Ri reflect a true working relationship beyond mere platitudes, then this would further elevate the MPS’s standing in Chinese deliberations on North Korea due to its conduit into an important part of the North Korean government and leadership.

The MPS has a direct avenue to influence North Korea policy at the highest levels through its representative on the PSC, Zhou Yongkang. Furthermore, the close cooperation with the PLA for border security provides another avenue to voice its policy preferences with a more powerful stakeholder that shares common interests, since coordination for border security, called the “shared responsibility” system, is overseen by a joint civilian-military State Commission of Border and Coastal Defense, which is headed by the Minister of Public Security.[8]  This allows the MPS direct access to the foreign policy decision-making process. All these aspects combine to make the MPS an integral player in the border region with North Korea. The MPS’s interests would thus be to avoid instability in the North and to have a well-policed border to limit illegal border activity, but it may be reticent to support economic reforms in the North for fear of increased illegal activity, something other stakeholders in the relationship would not consider as they support economic reform.


[1] Bates Gill, China’s North Korea Policy. Rep. United States Institute of Peace, 2011: 7.

See also: David Eimer, “Kim Jong-Un appears alongside his father,” The Telegraph, October 10, 2010.

[2] United States, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, China’s Foreign Policy: Challenges and Players, Testimony by Victor Cha. 2011: 102.

[3] “China Openly Backs North Korea’s Succession Plan,” The Telegraph 15 Feb. 2011.

[4] You Ji, “China And North Korea: A Fragile Relationship Of Strategic Convenience,” Journal Of Contemporary China 10.28 (2001): 389.

[5] “Officials from China, DPRK pledge consolidation of friendship,” Xinhua, July 25, 2012.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “N. Korea buys more anti-riot gear from China,” Korea Herald, June 21, 2011.

[8] Robert O. Modarelli III, “PLA Missions in Frontier Security and Counterterrorism,” Ed. David Lai and Andrew Scobell, Beyond the Strait: PLA Missions Other Than Taiwan. Ed. Roy Kamphausen, Strategic Studies Institute: 136.

2 Comments

  1. If the PBS is that crucial in Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang, replacing Zhou Yongkang might not be a great idea?

  2. Good point. A characteristic of many governing systems is that by the time someone has really figured out their job, time to go.

    However, PBSC members over 65 at the time of a Party Congress will NOT be elected to a position. It’s one of the few requirements. So on the next PBSC, both returning members (Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang) will be younger than 65 and serve two five-year terms. All others who join will be under 65.

    BTW, minimum age for a Chinese President is 45. Factoid I just researched today. I knew you would want to know – worth some trivia points at some undefined time horizon.

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