The Cultural Revolution in Pyongyang and Yanbian: Interview with Zhang Liangui

By | March 19, 2014 | No Comments

Zhang Liangui (张琏瑰) on Phoenix TV, May 24, 2012

A photo of Zhang Liangui (张琏瑰) on Phoenix TV, May 24, 2012 | Image: Phoenix TV

Rare are those commentators or analysts of North Korea who have extensive on-the-ground experience and first hand knowledge of the country. Such rarity makes this extensive January 22 interview conducted by China’s Commentary Online with Chinese academic Zhang Liangui all the more valuable.

This interview will be of interest to those looking for informed voices to shed new light on North Korea following the purge of Jang Sung-taek. Covering a range of issues, it provides fresh Chinese insight on North Korea in a period of some unease between the two countries. Having spent the mid-1960s studying as a university student in Pyongyang, and later working as part of a security detail along the Chinese-North Korean border, Zhang’s commentary is enriched by a wealth of personal experience that few observers in the West can rival.

Of particular note to readers of the Chinese press is the willingness of the interviewer to probe Zhang on sensitive issues usually avoided by outlets such as the Global Times (环球时报), including a surprisingly candid description of China’s policy of repatriating North Korean citizens who have fled into China, and the potential consequences for such attempted defectors. While such direct questions are not always answered with the greatest sincerity, the sense of frustration with—even bewilderment at—the behavior of the North Korean government by the interviewer is an energizing change from the more staid commentaries usually provided in the official press.

Part 1 of this interview focuses on Zhang’s personal experiences in and with North Korea, first as an international student in Pyongyang in the mid-1960s, and his years working along China’s border with North Korea.

Zhang Liangui, “张琏瑰:张成泽事件后的朝鲜及东北亚局势 [Zhang Liangui: The Situation in North Korea and North East Asia following the Jang Sung-taek Incident], Consensus Online, January 22, 2014.

Guest Profile, Zhang Liangui: Professor and doctoral student advisor at the Communist Party’s Central School International Military and Strategic Department, recipient of a special allowance from the State Council (国务院特殊津贴享受者).

From July 1964 to February 1968, he  studied at North Korea’s Kim Il-sung Integrated University (김일성종합대학/金日成综合大学). From December 1985 to July 1988 he studied in the Theory Department of the Communist Party Central School, with a focus on international politics.

Following that, he worked in Jilin in the fields of public security / border defense (公安边防) and military affairs, as well as in the Korean Research Office (朝鲜研究所) at the Jilin Academy of Social Sciences.

From May 1985 until today he has been involved in teaching and research work at the Communist Party Central School.

Currently he is a specially invited researcher at Peking University’s Korean Research Centre (北京大学韩国研究中心), the Asia-Africa Development Research and Department at the National Council’s Research and Development Center, and as a standing member of the China Asia-Africa Development Association.

Huang Nan (黄南, Senior Editor at Consensus): Hello Professor Zhang, welcome to Consensus Online, and our discussion concerning the “North Korean problem”. Recently, people’s attention has been fixed on changes to the North Korean political situation following the sudden execution of North Korea’s Number 2 senior figure Jang Sung-taek. We’ve compiled a selection of netizen’s questions, and, first, we’d like to focus on Jang Sung-taek and Kim Il-sung Integrated University.

Dr. Zhang, why did you decide to study abroad in North Korea in 1964, and what did you study at Kim Il-sung Integrated University?  Many of the senior figures in North Korea graduated from that university. What kind of character does the university have?

Zhang Liangui (张琏瑰): Yes, Kim Il-sung Integrated University is a school which occupies a high position in North Korea. I went to study in North Korea as an exchange student in 1964. Before the Cultural Revolution, China didn’t have self-funded exchange studies. At that time, all exchange students were publicly funded, with high schools being the first to send out students. In the early 1960s, after Premier Zhou Enlai visited Asian and African countries, China was thought, and, according to the Central Government’s analysis of the time, China was projected to join the UN in 1965. Therefore our country would need a large contingent of Foreign Service officers.

Zhou Enlai with Cho Dok-hae in Yanbian, 1962. Image via Adam Cathcart.

Zhou Enlai with Korean-Chinese comrade Cho Dok-hae in Yanbian, 1962. | Image: Adam Cathcart

Our first generation of foreign affairs officers came from the battlefield, and most couldn’t speak foreign languages. So the Central Government decided that from that period they would begin selecting a number of high school graduates from various large cities to study overseas.  The original plan was to begin in 1964 and end in 1966, with a group of three hundred being selected from around the country and sent off to dozens of countries around the world for a period of three consecutive years. In this way there would be nine hundred so-selected individuals which in the future could be of use to foreign affairs work.

Unfortunately, the situation changed in 1965 and we didn’t join the United Nations. The Cultural Revolution began in 1966, and all work was thrown into confusion. Groups [of students destined for careers in the Foreign Ministry] had been sent out in 1964 and 1965, but with the explosion of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, no group was sent out that year.

The Cultural Revolution had an impact on Chinese exchange studies studying overseas. We weren’t able to conduct our studies according to the original plan. Afterwards we were all called back to participate in the Cultural Revolution at home.

In terms of [students studying in] countries like North Korea, coming back to China was just that, coming back, so we weren’t able to return to North Korea again. But in terms of some other countries, when the Cultural Revolution had eased up a bit, by the early 1970s some of those who had returned to China were able to head back out again. Most of that group has already reached retirement age.

Host: Is the character of Kim Il-sung Integrated University similar to that of our Central Party School?

Zhang Liangui: Not really; it’s just a pure university. Naturally, because of its high position, political requirements are really high. For example, when selecting the head of the university, or the political level of the cadre, each post has very particular demands. In reality, North Korea does have a school similar to the Central Party School, which is called the Kim Il-sung High Level Party School (金日成高级党校).

Host: Jang Sung-taek was also a graduate of that university?

Zhang Liangui: Yes, according to reports he graduated in the mid-1960s majoring in political economy, and afterwards went to the Soviet Union as an exchange student. We Chinese exchange students lived in solitary dorms, went to class alone, and rarely had contact with North Korean students. So at the time, we really didn’t know those kinds of people [like Jang Sung-taek].

The aim of our studies was quite clear, from the beginning we were to study the language, and then study aspects such as North Korean history, geography, culture and economics. Whatever was concerned with North Korea, we were supposed to understand and be familiar with. Because the aim of our training was in the future to work in matters related in North Korea, we needed to understand everything about the country.

But quite regrettably, our studies hadn’t finished before the Cultural Revolution began and we were called back to China.

Red Guards in Yanbian Menace the Purged and Snake-like "Liu Shaoqi," circa 1967; Image via Ryu Eunkyu.

Red Guards in Yanbian Menace the Purged and Snake-like “Liu Shaoqi,” circa 1967 | Image: Ryu Eunkyu.

After a year of taking part in the Cultural Revolution in Beijing, in February of 1968, most of us were sent to the Sino-North Korean border to work. I was sent to the small border town of Tumen in Jilin Province. Just then, Premier Zhou Enlai instructed that our group of students, because we had already felt the impact of the Cultural Revolution [受到文化大革命的影响] and had been unable to finish our studies, was to go to the Tangshan PLA Farm to work and then, from there, find an opportunity to continue our studies. But at that time we had already boarded the train heading east [and didn’t go to Tangshan].

Host: At the time you went to North Korea, did you feel there was big difference between the country and China?

Zhang Liangui: At that time the whole situation in North Korea, especially the economic situation, was better than in China. This point may be hard for some young people to imagine. In the early 1960s in our country, 1960, 1961, 1962 were the the Three Year Period of Hardship. At that time, life was really hard and many were hungry. But at that time North Korea had large harvests, their conditions were better than ours.

In the border regions, many Chinese people fled into North Korea. So you could say that the time when we went to North Korea was when the North Korean people lived best [我们去的时候那是朝鲜生活最好的时候]. After going to North Korea, I felt that it wasn’t bad on the whole, especially with respect to those areas that involved taking care of exchange students: There were exchange student dorms and cafeterias, and every day the food was good. At the time I felt, North Korea may be a small country, but its management and infrastructure were both quite good. During the Korean War everywhere suffered extreme destruction, everything was ruins, but in a period of a few years after the end of the war, with the help of socialist countries, North Korea had been able to quickly recover. It was really incredible.

Source: Zhang Liangui, “Zhang Liangui: The Situation in North Korea and North East Asia following the Jang Sung-taek Incident” [张琏瑰:张成泽事件后的朝鲜及东北亚局势], Consensus Online, January 22, 2014. Translation by Emile Dirks.

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