Zhang Dejiang and the DPRK: Enter the Electronics Industrial Working Delegation

By | March 30, 2012 | No Comments

Even when rockets emblazoned with hangul are being trundled around the periphery, strange developments in domestic politics maintain a certain primacy. In an unusually precipitous public clash of swords between the Obama and Romney camps this past week, the subject of East Asia never arose once, in spite of the fact that the POTUS was in the thick of things in Korea. In Beijing, concerns over North Korean missile tests have been overwhelmed by speculation about the meaning of events in Sichuan since February. Massive speculation about a coup or power grab, or at the very least, the relative positioning of Bo Xilai to other members of the Politiburo, have lent themselves to a general sense of dread within the Party that a Cultural Revolution-style power struggle had either been averted or was still possible.  (The last thought, far from being a Jung Chang-style projection by the authors, is courtesy Wen Jiabao.) 

The answer put forward by the CCP to its troubles in Chongqing has been to make Zhang Dejiang the new Party Secretary of the immense city.  Apart from this commentary on SinoNK about Zhang Dejiang, very little sustained commentary has been generated on the question of what Zhang’s appointment means for Chinese foreign policy, much less the possible connection between Chongqing and North Korea.  In today’s post, SinoNK Economics and Trade Analyst Analyst Matthew Bates, a holder of several degrees from SOAS and an experienced hand in the world of business ties with the DPRK, provides a new pattern of analysis looking forward. – Adam Cathcart and Charles Kraus, editors 

Zhang Dejiang and the DPRK: Enter the Electronics Industrial Working Delegation

by Matthew Bates

On December 15, 2011, Han Kwang Bok, the DPRK’s Minister of Electronics Industry and a Vice-Premier, went to China for a three-day trip with a delegation and met with then Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang (张德江).

Electronics is believed to have been identified by the DPRK as a strategic industry, a decision made following Kim Il Sung’s visit to Europe in 1984, and was formally identified as such in the first and second three-year plans of 1988-1991 and 1991-1994 (which included targets such as production of high-pressure-resistance semiconductors and 64-bit computers).  However, arms control sanctions such as the Wassanaar Arrangement, and various US and UN laws have restricted imports and exports in view of the dual use potential of much technology, and the sector has never become internationally competitive.

In addition to the DPRK’s own interests, electronics assembly is also a labour-intensive processes, which China may potentially want to outsource to one of North Korea’s Special Economic Zones. Even though arms control sanctions have been an issue for importing technology into the Kaesong Industrial Complex, China is not a participant in the Wassenaar Arrangement. There is also no US military presence on China’s border with the North which can ensure enforcement of such agreements, so China may be relatively independent in how it interprets and implements arms control agreements.

Thus, the meeting between the DPRK Minister of Electronics Industry and the PRC Political Bureau member Zhang Dejiang may reflect a DPRK desire to form a relationship to develop specific technical expertise. For its part, the PRC could be keen to link this to broader economic and political issues.

Owing to the significance of Han Kwang Bok’s meetings with Zhang Dejiang, the Korean Central News Agency paid particularly close attention to this December visit. It is particularly noteworthy that the entire Korean Central News Agency dispatch featured below is essentially one long indirect quotation of Zhang’s words and description of his activities in which his Korean counterpart Vice-Premier Han is mentioned as having only been present:

Vice-Premier of China on Inheriting Sino-DPRK Friendship
Pyongyang, December 16 (KCNA) — The Sino-DPRK friendship should be inherited in the future, too, as it is a valuable asset provided and left by leaders of elder generations of the two countries, said Zhang Dejiang, vice-premier of the State Council of China, on Thursday.

In a talk with Han Kwang Bok, vice-premier and minister of Electronics Industry of the DPRK who is visiting China at the head of a DPRK electronics industrial working delegation, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, Zhang said that China and the DPRK are friendly neighbors sharing the same mountain and rivers.

He, member of the Political Bureau of the C.C., Communist Party of China, said that several visits to China paid by General Secretary Kim Jong Il and the recent brisk exchange of high-level delegations between the two countries have made great contributions to boosting the bilateral friendly relations.

We are rejoiced over many achievements made by the Korean people in the efforts to build a thriving nation under the correct leadership of Kim Jong Il, he added.

Zhang gave a reception in honor of the DPRK delegation that day.

Despite having been named a member of the Politburo in 2002 and possessing many close ties to North Korea (see bio), Zhang seems only to have been named in KCNA only once prior to November 2010. (Zhang hosted Kim Jong Il in Guangzhou in 2006.) Since November 2010, however, and particularly since he led an official friendship delegation to the DPRK in July 2011, there have been dozens of KCNA articles featuring of Zhang, many just reporting his comments on what often are ostensibly purely Chinese domestic issues, such employment for graduates, scientific innovation, water transportation, railway security, defence modernization, and coal mine safety.

The prime coverage given to Zhang during the last year of Kim Il Jong’s life suggests that Zhang may have been identified as a strategically valuable figure particularly sympathetic to the DPRK within the Politburo, and that the KCNA may have been instructed to accord him prestige and do what it can to indicate to the Chinese leadership that he may have influence on the DPRK.

No Comments

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.