Turmoil in the Inner Circle: Zhou Yongkang and North Korea

By | April 06, 2012 | No Comments

Kim Jong Il greets Zhou Yongkang in October 2010. |  Image via legalinfo.gov.cn, link via NK Leadership Watch

One of the working assumptions in looking at North Korea as it interacts with China is that the PRC, more or less, is wealthier, more powerful, more modern, and more open to the West — and thus better — than North Korea. But is it more stable?  Are questions about “regime stability” in northeast Asia misplaced when they assume that North Korea’s ruling elite are teetering on the edge of a volcano and China’s ruling elites relatively more secure in Zhongnanhai? From the gates of the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, the “Wang Lijun Affair” has been reverberating now for just over two month,s and its multiple impacts on Chinese politics encompass the PRC’s relations with North Korea. Megha Rajagopalan, fresh from the news and rumor battlefield that is Beijing, arrives with an analysis of the security side of the question. — Adam Cathcart, Editor

Turmoil in the Inner Circle: Zhou Yongkang and North Korea

by Megha Rajagopalan

Amid the increasingly mysterious fallout from Bo Xilai’s ouster, speculation has been running rampant about a top CCP figure familiar to Korea-watchers— Zhou Yongkang (周永康).

Zhou, China’s domestic security chief and the ninth-ranked member of the Politburo Standing Committee, is said to have been a significant political mentor to Bo Xilai (薄熙来), approving of Bo’s tough tactics when the 60-year old princeling was Party Secretary of the sprawling southwestern metropolis of Chongqing.

Zhou snagged headlines early last month when, after Bo’s disappearance from the public eye after March 9, rumors began circulating on the ever-reliable Weibo that Zhou’s head would be next on the chopping block. One rumor, which has now been discredited by most analysts, had it that Zhou and Bo together attempted a military coup that culminated in a shoot-out at Zhongnanhai. Huanqiu Shibao has been steadily revisiting these and similar rumors about tanks in Beijing, reminding netizens that the PRC is not “the republic of rumors.”

Speculation that Zhou had been purged along with Bo reached a fever pitch when Zhou failed to appear at a legal conference in Shanghai, though he sent a letter, a summary of which appeared on the front page of People’s Daily (Chinese). The letter voices support for Hu’s leadership, perhaps in an attempt to squash the coup rumors. One paragraph refers to “the people’s right to know about political and legal affairs, their right to participation, right to expression, and right to supervise,” a clear nod to the Chinese reformist agenda.

Afterward, Zhou reemerged, appearing on the Party’s emblematic nightly news program Xinwen Lianbo and in other public fora. But rumors continue to swell that the security chief is under house arrest or that a worse fate is imminent.

Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il, Zhou Yongkang, and Kim Yong Nam in Pyongyang, October 10, 2010 |  Image courtesy of Shangdu.com

Zhou Yongkang’s DPRK Portfolio | Zhou has emerged relatively recently as a key figure in North Korea relations (though Bo Xilai often came into contact with DPRK leaders during his tenure as party secretary of Dalian). Last October, he traveled to Pyongyang for three days to attend celebrations for the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Worker’s Party, sitting atop the dais beside Kim Jong Il to watch the biggest military parade in recent North Korean history. According to a People’s Daily report, Zhou also visited Pyongyang’s suburbs and Kim Il Sung’s old residence.

“Here, I have received a deep education in revolutionary tradition,” Zhou reportedly reflected, examining the Great Leader’s furnishings.

Zhou also met with Kim Yong Nam, and held four meetings with Kim Jong Il. He brought senior officials from Jilin, Heilongjiang and Liaoning provinces along on his trip to meet with North Korean counterparts.,

DPRK leaders then visited Beijing later that month in a delegation led by Mun Kyon Dok, the secretary of the Workers’ Party Central Committee and chief secretary of the Pyongyang City Committee. Zhou and his cohorts briefed the Korean visitors on the 5th Plenary Session of the 17th CPC Central Committee as well as China’s next five-year plan.

Impacts on Border Security  |  As in all things in Chinese politics, it’s difficult to say what direct impact the fall of Bo Xilai and his take-no-prisoners approach to public security will have on China’s North Korea policy, particularly on increasingly tight border security. Perhaps it will not have any implications–a Chinese political philosophy researcher I recently spoke with said highly sensitive issues such as refugees are less likely to become politicized, and a hard line on North Korean defectors seems to have been the status quo for years now. Presumably, refugees were high on the list of topics Zhou brought to Pyongyang. As the Bo Xilai story unfolded, many analysts predicted — with no small measure of hope — the weakening of Bo’s leftist faction and the rise of reformers in Beijing. There’s no information to indicate reformers in Chinese government favor more lax border control in Yanbian– but Zhou’s failure to disappear proves his hard-line ideas on security are here to stay.

Zhou Yongkang tours North Korea

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