Seven Fingers: China’s New Leadership and North Korea Policy

By | December 29, 2012 | 1 Comment

China's new Politburo Standing Committee members: Leader of China Communist Party Xi Jinping (centre), (clockwise from top left) Zhang Dejiang, Li Keqiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, Zhang Gaoli.  Image courtesy Reuters

China’s new Politburo Standing Committee members: Party Secretary Xi Jinping (center),  Zhang Dejiang, Li Keqiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, Zhang Gaoli (listed clockwise from top left). |  Image courtesy Reuters

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Abridged versions of this essay were recently published by Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum / PacNet (December 25), and by South China Morning Post (December 29). We are pleased to bring SinoNK readers the full version here. — Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor

Seven Fingers: Measuring the Meaning of China’s New Leadership on North Korea Policy

by Adam Cathcart, Roger Cavazos and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga     

When Mao Zedong’s legacy was finally decided upon after long debate by the CCP in 1982, the Party settled upon the notion that Mao was seven parts good, three parts bad, just as Mao had declared that if his own ten fingers represented Stalin, seven were good.  Now, the Politburo Standing Committee has been shrunk to seven, what does it mean for North Korea? Where will those “fingers” point?

The PSC as Focus | As China encourages economic reform in North Korea, the substance and style of CCP policies and entreaties will be greatly influenced by the Chinese leaders with North Korea experience. In understanding future North Korea policy, the makeup of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) is the easiest bellwether, since the PSC is the ultimate decision-making body on all crucial foreign policy decisions. When Hu Jintao was at the helm (2002-2012), the PSC lacked any members with direct personal experience in the DPRK. The only frequent direct interlocutor between North Korea’s leadership and the PSC was Zhou Yongkang, China’s galvanizing internal security czar. The PSC was not, generally speaking, an effective instrument for prodding the North Koreans to move toward economic reforms or greater economic bonds to China.

Hu’s tenure was marked by one signal success — the PSC and the whole Chinese bureaucracy supported an ostensibly stable succession to Kim Jong-un, and there was not external interference in the DPRK. This transition was personally handled by Zhou, again reflecting the relative disparity of North Korea expertise in the PSC under Hu.

Kim Jong Il with Hu Jintao in Pyonyang, 2005 | Image via The Marxist-Leninist

Kim Jong Il with Hu Jintao in Pyonyang, 2005 | Image via The Marxist-Leninist

Provincial and Personal Experiences on New PSC as Helpful to DPRK | Rising officials who hail from the Northeast provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang understand the importance of perseverance to advance China’s agenda of North Korean economic reform. These officials, headlined by Zhang Dejiang and Li Keqiang now on the Politburo Standing Committee and Sun Zhengcai in the Politburo, spent formative years in close proximity to North Korea, benefited from their time in local governments with long-term cross-border interactions with North Korean counterparts to appreciate that patience and constant pressure are  key to promoting reform in Pyongyang. This new generation of leaders is ostensibly better informed on North Korea issues and may lead to some policy nuance from China, if not policy changes.

Zhang Dejiang| Today, the ascension of Zhang Dejiang as one of five new PSC members has increased influence due to the PSC’s downsizing, and indicates that his formidable experience with the North may play a leading role in North Korea policy.

Zhang is a tried and true North Korea hand. Beyond the obvious connections to the North by graduating from Kim Il-sung University, where he was Secretary of the Party Branch, and spending his early career in Jilin province, his specific roles at each juncture of his career speak volumes about hands-on experiences that portend unrivaled expertise on North Korean issues.

His interest in the North started when he first attended university in China, as he studied Korean language right across the border from North Korea in Yanji at Yanbian Universty. After graduating from his first undergraduate program, he became a member of the Standing Committee of the school’s Party Committee. Yanji is the heartland of the Korean minority in China and is currently the area most affected by North Korean refugees, crime, gangs and drugs and other border problems. Moreover, Yanbian University was the first university established in a minority area and has consistently received support from high levels of the Chinese government. This early experience in Yanji affords Zhang a connection and ground-level perspective to a vital aspect of China-North Korea relations.

Yanbian University's central building | Image courtesy Charles Wetzel

Yanbian University’s central building | Image courtesy Charles Wetzel

During his time at Kim Il-sung University, Zhang was Secretary of the Party Branch of Chinese Students, setting him on his path of bridging China and North Korea. Upon his return to China, Zhang became Vice-President of Yanbian University, a major promotion that set him on an upward trajectory. He rose from deputy secretary of Yanji city to the same positions in Yanbian prefecture and Jilin province before becoming Party Secretary of Jilin in 1995. Zhang owes his rise to power in the CCP to his time in Jilin, and specifically the Korean minority area of Yanbian.

Zhang’s assumed sympathies with Yanbian and the local governments may lead him to favor more food aid to North Korea to avoid refugees and a greater emphasis on Chinese investment into North Korea originating from Jilin province, as well as central government assistance in building infrastructure to support Beijing’s much-desired economic reform agenda in the North.

With the expected retirement of Zhang and the other four junior members of the PSC in 2017, China’s sixth generation of leaders may land on the PSC and bring with them significant North Korea experience as well. Of the two high-profile candidates to join the PSC in 2017, soon to be Guangdong party secretary Hu Chunhua and Chongqing party secretary Sun Zhengcai, only Sun has personal experience with North Korea.

Elevated from Jilin, Sun Zhengcai has a laugh in Beijing at the Party Congress | Image courtesy "China and Me"

Elevated from Jilin, Sun Zhengcai has a laugh in Beijing at the Party Congress | Click image for more information about his dealings with South Korean business

Sun Zhengcai | Sun Zhengcai is one of the rising stars of the sixth generation of leaders with notable experience dealing with North Korea. Sun’s rise to power came under the patronage of Wen Jiabao or Jia Qinglin in the Beijing city government and Ministry of Agriculture, as he holds a PhD in agriculture, differing from Zhang’s origins in the Northeast. In contrast, Sun’s final big test before solidifying his position as a rising star was as the party secretary of Liaoning province from 2009 to 2012. While this indicates he lacks Zhang’s local knowledge culled over a long period of time, Sun nonetheless has now governed a province that not only borders North Korea but also is the economic bridge between China and the North, as Dandong handles over half of all cross-border trade. Sun’s time at the helm in Liaoning also oversaw the creation of China’s second special economic zone with the DPRK in the Hwanggumphyong and Wihwa Islands Economic Zone and a dramatic rise in China-North Korea trade from $2.7 billion to $5.6 billion between 2009 and 2011. Sun undoubtedly appreciates the value of China-North Korea economic relations and in comparison to Zhang, may be more focused on the economic aspect of the relationship than the human security side.

Furthermore, Sun developed a personal relationship with Kim Jong-il, hosting the elder Kim on each of his last three visits to China. Sun continued this relationship with the North’s top leadership by hosting Jang Song-taek during his own visit to Beijing this August. One possible marker of Sun’s continued ties to the North is if Kim Jong-un visits Chongqing on his first (or second) visit to China, likely in 2013. While Kim Jong-il never ventured beyond the east coast of China due to his unwillingness to fly, Kim Il-sung did visit Sichuan with Deng Xiaoping to secure his approval for the first succession in 1982. Furthermore, with Chongqing lingering in the remnants of Bo Xilai’s state-dominated economic model, Kim Jong-un might find Chongqing an attractive side trip from Beijing to further draw similarities to his grandfather and signal a hesitant/limited willingness to embrace economic reform with socialist characteristics. While this may not be a desirable image for Kim Jong-un to look dependent on Chinese favor, it could also be cast by the North Korean media as harkening back to the good ol’ days of Sino-North Korean friendship under Kim Il-sung and another slight push to differentiate Kim Jong-un from his father.

Palm-Reading: China’s Korea Hands  |  Although the new leadership has yet to make any official or indicative statements on North Korea, insider Chinese academics are a useful gauge for the temperature in Beijing policy circles. These prominent academics include Zhang Liangui of the Central Party School, Zhu Feng of Peking University and Lv Chao of the Shenyang Academy of Social Sciences, among others. These Chinese experts who are allowed and encouraged to comment about North Korea in the Chinese news media have not been entirely favorable.  Zhang Liangui, a Kim Il-Sung university graduate, has been an outspoken skeptic of North Korean reforms. One analysis of Zhang’s views of North Korean economic reform in 2010 noted that:

Zhang says the goal of North Korea’s economic reform has been to support the “military-first” policy (songun, 先军政策, xianjun zhengce) by creating new sources of funding for the military’s nuclear and missile programmes….He believes the real purpose of the Rason Economic Zone is to deal with North Korea’s oil supply problems by diversifying import sources and acquiring foreign currency through transit fees.

Preparing the way for Kim Jong Un to China? It appears more work needs to be done.

Preparing the way for Kim Jong Un to China? It appears more work needs to be done.

Is there a pro-North Korea Faction in the Current CCP Leadership?  |  Discerning the personal policy preferences of any CCP leader in this day and age is famously perilous, but the role of distinct personalities still matters.  Moreover, there are certain cadre who at least carry more of the aroma of reform. For the most part, men whose political leanings — those who attack corruption more brazenly, and who speak the language of true populism, arguing that a loosening of certain controls would benefit democratization of the Party — are not currently installed in the Standing Committee.

North Korea need not fear a redux of the early/mid 1980s, when cadre like Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang were expressing their concerns about both Chinese communism and the North Korean variety. If China moves towards another 1989 moment, North Korea is now sufficiently connected via communications to Beijing where this could be rather dangerous for the students in Pyongyang, no matter how much work has been done by men like the current Kim Il Sung Univerity President to mobilize them into neat and obedient columns.

When Kim Jong-il died, the North Korean media were quick to point out the sorrow felt and expressed by Dai Bingguo, the now-retiring statesman who had become known for his close friendship with the North Korean dictator. (Even Hillary Clinton evoked Dai’s friendship when she praised his mentoring of her understanding of the DPRK early on in her term as America’s top diplomat.)

Zhang Dejiang hardly seems as emotive as the ebullient Dai, but his experience of having studied at KIS U would appear to have him as a more empathetic partner for the DPRK.  Zhang is often cited as being more sensitive, as Nathan notes, “may lead him to represent [more] local pragmatic concerns” when it comes to North Korea. This includes not just border security in Jilin, etc., but also representing Chinese power companies in updating and amplifying the still-antiquated power grid between the two countries.

Zhang’s experience as a youth in North Korea is now a few decades in his past and may not have a demonstrable effect on his sympathies for the DPRK. (This would be tantamount to argumeing that Premier Li Keqiang’s years in a Henanvillage make him, ipso facto, more responsive to peasants. Zhang Dejiang, however, did have extensive interactions with North Korean colleagues just before Kim Jong-il’s death, and has shown interest in setting up more electronic and technical exchanges between high-tech manufacturing hubs in China with North Koreans.  (The Acer computers used by KPA officers were almost certainly made in Chongqing, Zhang’s previous remit.)

Two of the most powerful men in this photo have either died or been purged in the past year. North Korean leadership, however, still needs to peer up at China. | Photo from October 25, 2010, at pro-Chinese monument in South Pyong'an;  courtesy North Korea Leadership Watch

Two of the most powerful men in this photo have either died or been purged in the past year. North Korean leadership, however, still needs to peer up at China. | Photo from October 25, 2010, at pro-Chinese monument in South Pyong’an; courtesy North Korea Leadership Watch

The Security Equation | Much has been made by the “demotion” of the security position within the Politburo and the relative downturn in public appearances of Zhou Yongkang. However, Zhou’s successor, Meng Jianzhu, is hardly likely to be less hardline, and not having a seat on the Standing Committee will hardly deprive him of his immense budget for internal security.

As Nathan points out in his M.A. thesis, and Stephan Blancke pointed out in a key essay on KPA-PLA interactions regarding intelligence, these ties are unlikely to atrophy. Making common cause against reformers would appear to have actually strengthened some of these relationships.  (As the Dalian-Tokyo-Syria shipment might appear to indicate, as with DPRK’s ongoing relationships which are very profitable with Burmese hardline generals, even as trends appear to change).

Xi Jinping’s mien and his public discussion would appear to argue for a view that the military-military elements of the alliance, with their limits, will remain strong. China will reluctantly tolerate space rockets even though it enrages regional rivals, but will likely tolerate small arms and weapons development within limits; it is in China’s interest to keep the KPA on its feet.

Chinese Reaction to DPRK Satellite | As an example, prior to North Korea’s recent missile launch, the Chinese strengthened their hitherto rather oblique criticism of North Korea by issuing this statement: “North Korea has the right to the peaceful use of outer space,” closely followed by these new words “but this right is restricted by the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.” In language containing some slight indication of resentment, China states that it “hopes the relevant parties take actions conducive to peace and stability on the peninsula, act calmly and avoid escalating the situation.”

Zhu Feng, one of the scholars mentioned above, has also made post-launch comments in English and Chinese-language media indicating that North Korea is causing Chinese soul-searching over whether and how to keep the relationship on track after the DPRK publicly demonstrated its unwillingness to listen to Chinese patrons.

China’s willingness to publicly acknowledge UN sanctions on DPRK indicates an increased exasperation and willingness to nudge DPRK in a nuanced manner. China is reminding Pyongyang that China can enforce – or ignore – UN Security Council Resolutions to DPRK’s benefit or detriment.

Statements from scholarly DPRK hands allow the PRC to send surrogate messages and maintain some distance. Official statements from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which were also echoed in People’s Daily, are official voices and canon “truths” as they are vetted, pared down, and defined by the Chinese Communist Party.

Pointed in the Same Direction | Given China’s preference for stability, we can expect all seven fingers to urge North Korea to help maintain the stable environment China desperately needs to focus on reaching targets set at the 18th Party Congress. But it looks like some of those seven fingers are tired of being pricked by North Korea. As a result, they are letting the DPRK know directly and indirectly that the “kid glove only” treatment of the previous PSC may be coming to an end.

Illustration courtesy South China Morning Post

Fingers pointed out, fingers pointing in |  Illustration courtesy South China Morning Post

One Comment

  1. Good article, very in-depth and well researched. I assumed much the same of Zhang Dejiang when I reviewed his credentials while researching the 18th CPC. One would hope the incoming administration uses these hands on connections in a meaningful way and encourages more reform and joint ventures in the DPRK. Beijing should also do what it can to encourage inter-Korean trade and economic relations.

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