There Goes the Neighborhood? Zhang Dejiang, Chongqing, and Chinese-North Korean Relations

By | March 15, 2012 | No Comments

Sino-NK’s editors are on the move, fleeing North: Managing Editor Charles Kraus is in Toronto for the Association for Asian Studies conference, and Chief Editor Adam Cathcart is on assignment in the PRC’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region.  Goings-on in Beijing and further south in Chongqing, however, are at the heart of this Krausian missive.  — Adam Cathcart

There Goes the Neighborhood? Zhang Dejiang, Chongqing, and Chinese-North Korean Relations

by Charles Kraus

Zhang Dejiang

Scandal is sweeping the southwest. Bo Xilai (薄熙来), the once rising “red” political star, has been removed as Party Secretary of Chongqing. No longer presiding over a municipality of nearly 30 million residents, his replacement is the 65-year old Zhang Dejiang (张德江).

Who is Zhang, and what does the leadership scuffle in the southwest mean—if anything—for North Korea?

For starters, Zhang Dejiang hails from the Northeast. He was born in Tai’an, Liaoning Province, in November 1946. While Tai’an is by no means a border city (it is located some 300-kilometers from Dandong, China’s gateway into North Korea), the timing of Zhang’s birth coincided with an important stage in the Chinese Civil War in which the Chinese Communist Party was greatly aided by North Korea. Much of Liaoning Province, including Tai’an, was “liberated” in autumn 1945, only to fall back into Nationalist hands in 1946. Thousands of Chinese Communist troops and personnel fled into North Korea and endured a long but safe march into the forests of Linjiang. While Zhang and his family probably did not leave Tai’an, this was an era in which the foundations of the Chinese-North Korean alliance were born.

As a young child and throughout elementary school, Zhang would have also grown up in the throngs of one of New China’s first military conflicts and political campaigns: the War to Resist America and Aid Korea. From 1950 to 1953, no doubt, Zhang’s childhood was shaped by concerns surrounding a Korean War not far removed from Tai’an. Until 1958, Zhang would have heard continuously about the selfless deeds of the People’s Volunteer Army in Korea and that Chinese-Korean friendship was forged with fresh blood.

Zhang Dejiang meets Kim Yong-nam

As he entered adulthood, Zhang was thus somewhat drawn or at least predisposed to cultivating ties with North Korea. He joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1971, and began his career in Jilin Province. Significantly, his first posts were in Wangqing County, which sits on the cusp of the Sino-Korean-Russian border.

From 1972 until 1975, Zhang studied Korean language at Yanbian University, presumably becoming fluent in the language. Upon graduation, Zhang remained in the Korean Language Department at YanDa (Yanbian University), taking on organization and management roles within the university’s Party branch.

Armed with language skills, Zhang finally moved south in 1978. His destination: Pyongyang. He enrolled in the Department of Economics at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, where he eventually earned a second degree. He was concurrently Party Secretary for all Chinese international students at the school.

Zhang worked in Yanbian and Jilin Province for the next two decades, before he was transferred to Zhejiang. Much of his career, then, occurred within the context of interacting with North Korea.

Once elevated to national prominence in 2008, Zhang took on an advanced role in Sino-North Korean relations. As Vice-Premier, Zhang met Kim Jong-il in July 2011 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Signing of the Sino-Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Aid (中朝友好合作互助条约/중조우호협력상호원조조약). During the festivities in Pyongyang, Zhang also had the opportunity to meet-and-greet leaders such as Kim Yong-nam. As late as December 2011—just four months prior to his appointment to Chongqing—Zhang received Vice Premiere Han Kwang Bok in Beijing.

BBC News had recently called Zhang a “face to watch” because “Mr Zhang is an expert on a country that is perhaps China’s oldest ally – North Korea.” But with China’s southwestern turmoil and the removal of Bo Xilai, it seems that one of Beijing’s most knowledgeable and presumably capable handlers for the DPRK has also been sidelined. The harmonization of Bo Xilai may take place at the expense of China’s fragile alliance with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Zhang Dejiang, Center, Conveys Gifts to Kim Jong Il, with Kim Jong Un (left) and PRC Ambassador to the DPRK Liu Hongcai (right) looking on

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