Defectors, Nukes, Unification, and the Jang Song-taek Effect: Zhang Liangui Interview
Professor Zhang Liangui strikes a pessimistic note regarding the prospects for a resumption of the Six Party Talks, given North Korea’s desire to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state. He also notes the national security and environmental concerns China has regarding North Korea’s nuclear tests and the possibility of a nuclear disaster in the DPRK and what that would mean for China and the entire North East Asian region. While Zhang’s rhetoric remains conservative, he does touch on the strains North Korea’s behavior has placed on China, and on what kind of North Korea would be in the best interests of China.
This third and final translated portion of the interview (read Part 1 and Part 2) is also particularly noteworthy for the frank discussion of the human rights implications of China’s policy of returning North Korean defectors. While Zhang refrains from taking a clear position on the abuse of returned North Korean defectors, the interviewer’s strong questions on the subject suggest that the ethical dimension to China’s relationship with the DPRK is something not oblivious to Chinese observers.
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.
Host: After the Jang incident, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said this was North Korea’s internal affair (内部的事情), that we will adopt the principle of non-interference. Do you think sticking to this diplomatic policy is correct?
Zhang Liangui: Not interfering in the internal affairs of a foreign country is a principle that every country should stick to. But there’s also a problem here: if you take care of an issue that doesn’t involve my interests, of course I shouldn’t interfere, I have no reason to interfere.
But if it does involve my interests, of course I’ll have an opinion on it [当然我就要有个态度]. For example, trying Jang, however it’s done that’s your own domestic affair. But when Jang Song-taek was working, China and North Korea signed a number of economic cooperation agreements. If you unilaterally rip up those agreements, Chinese industries will suffer huge losses. This involves China’s national interests, and China is going to have an opinion on it. This isn’t an issue of interfering or not interfering, this is an issue of safeguarding the national interest. Therefore, every country when managing their own affairs needs to consider, if I do this will it impact upon the interests of other nations, and if it does, it needs to be discussed.
Host: People feel that when faced with some kinds of situations like that, [the government] would need to come to the rescue.
Zhang Liangui: Seeing a tragic situation like this and having that kind of opinion is normal. But feelings are feelings, policy is policy. Speaking honestly, there’s a bigger principle guiding things between two nations, and that’s the principle of mutual non-interference. If you interfere in the domestic affairs of someone else, wouldn’t that just make the world chaotic?
Host: After the Jang incident, what has the impact on Sino-North Korean economic relations been?
Zhang Liangui: For a long time Jang was in charge of economic exchange and economic cooperation with China, so of course his fall from power has had an impact, especially in regards to whether or not the contracts already signed would still be put into force. North Korea’s public statements have been very clear on issue of the selling of precious resources (宝贵资源) cheaply to foreign countries. Right now on this side of things the enterprises involved are Chinese, it’s Chinese enterprises which are there digging mines and excavating or trading for coal, and in addition, renting piers at Rajin Harbor (罗津港) and Chongjin Harbor (清津港). Right now it’s a real problem whether or not economic cooperation will continue or whether or not existing contracts will remain in effect. Of course this is a specific case.
The big influence on Sino-North Korean political and economic relations is whether or not North Korea will adjust its domestic and foreign policies in the wake of the Jang incident. This will certainly have an impact on the present and future relations of China and North Korea. But knowing what kind of influence it will have, and how big that influence will be, requires us to carefully watch whether or not North Korea puts any new policies on the table.
Host: Previously there have been some articles that have analyzed the situation, which have stated that North Korea has often gone back on its word regarding economic and trade agreements, and Chinese enterprises have been the ones to suffer.
Zhang Liangui: Looking at the enterprises that have entered into cooperation with North Korea, their situation and the reports on them that I’ve seen indicate that they aren’t making much of a profit, especially those involved in joint mining ventures. Some of these Chinese enterprises have even lost their principal investment. A classic example is last year a corporation from Shenyang that went to North Korea to set up a mine. The factory was set up, they began mining, and then in the end there was a conflict between them and the North Koreans, and they were forced to leave. They suffered huge losses. There were a lot of reports about it in the media. Other Chinese enterprises have also similar experiences.
Host: After the Jang incident, it was quite obvious that the content of North Korean bulletins and the judgement of the special military tribunal (特别军事法庭) involved China. Does this suggest any sort of problem?
Zhang Liangui: In reality, relations between North Korea and China are really complicated. For reasons that everyone knows, most Chinese people don’t really understand the specific details of what’s going on there, as most of us have an impression of North Korea that’s stuck in the 1950s. In fact, a lot situations are just our made up of our subjective inferences (主观推理), or are just in keeping with logical speculations (合乎逻辑的想象).
Not long ago I read a newly published North Korean history textbook, and running through the book was the discussion of how North Korea managed to resist the northern invasion [by UN forces]. So how they look at the role of China, how they look at the history of Sino-North Korean relations, these are all things that North Korea has its own view on.
Host: Did you have this sort of feeling when you were studying in North Korea?
Zhang Liangui: The beginning of the 1960s was the best period in Sino-North Korean relations. After 1965 there were some changes. After I graduated from university, I worked for a long time on the Sino-North Korean border. I had a lot of contact with North Korea. For example, mutual comings and goings of people on the border, and some disputes (一些纠纷). These were things that all of us really remember quite well. This is to say, there’s a good side to Sino-North Korean relations, but in the end we are two separate countries, and our interests aren’t going to be exactly the same. That’s why there were some situations on the border [这样在边界上也出现一些情况].
Host: Does China have any influence on North Korea? On key issues, is China able to project any influence [产生影响力]?
Zhang Liangui: It’s hard to answer that question in a simple and general way. The simple reality is, whether or not North Korea has oil depends upon China, which provides North Korea with most of its oil. Out in Dandong we’ve built some pipelines which provides North Korea with a daily supply of fuel. If there was no fuel provided by China, the North Korean military’s tanks and fighter planes wouldn’t be able to operate, and their economic construction would suffer a huge impact. China also provides North Korea with other assistance, like food and fertilizer, etc. From this perspective China has a large influence on North Korea, and under these conditions North Korea has to rely on Chinese aid in order to maintain social stability.
But in another way, Chinese aid to North Korea is actually decoupled from Sino-North Korean relations. Over the past few decades, although Sino-North Korean relations have been in a flux, China’s aid to North Korea has always been consistent. Even when North Korea conducted nuclear tests, although China expressed opposition, China didn’t reduce its bilateral assistance. This assistance and the fluctuations in bilateral relations are not linked. In this way, when North Korea takes care of its problems [朝鲜在处理问题的时候], when considering Sino-North Korean relations, the role of assistance is quite small. Therefore, our suggestions and our calls are basically ignored by the North Koreans.
Host: Whether or not they listen to China, they still get the cash [听不听中国的话都有钱拿].
Zhang Liangui: Whether or not they listen, there’s still oil being sent through the pipeline [听不听石油管道每天都在送油].
Host: Why are North Korean defectors (脱北者) sent back to North Korea after coming to China? Netizens feel that they shouldn’t be sent back, that this violates their human rights [这是违反人权的].
Zhang Liangui: This is quite a complex question. When I worked on the border I used to do this sort of work, interrogating some defectors and then sending them back. Firstly, my feelings about the situation are really complex. People who flee North Korea have all sorts of reasons for doing so, and they are all sorts of people. Some of their reasons are real, and some are not. China has to manage different situations in different ways, and has to resolve the issue in accordance with our national laws, international laws, and relevant treaties signed between China and North Korea. This is a basic principle. According to the Sino-North Korean treaty on managing the border, and regarding those who have crossed the border illegally, the principle is that they should be sent back.
Right now there are a lot of ethnic Koreans (朝鲜族) living in China whose ancestors are North Koreans. During times of famine a lot of them couldn’t survive, so they fled to China. Kim Il-sung (金日成) was one of them. When Kim Il-sung was little he followed his mom and dad over the border into China. At the time China’s relations with Korea were quite close. When they got to China they claimed a plot of land and began to work it, while others did other kinds of work, and slowly they integrated into local society. After the founding of the PRC, (the Chinese government) began to institute the household registry system (户口管理), and according to a particular point in time it was determined whether you were North Korean or Chinese. On a certain day at a certain time you might be in China and you’d be Chinese, or you might be in Korea and be Korean. This kind of special situation determined the frequency of the back and forth migration of Chinese and North Koreans. Now border management has made it illegal to cross the border, and this issue has been attended to. In the past you could cross the border as you pleased.
Host: The defectors that we send back end up suffering horribly inhumane punishment (不人道的处罚) over there.
Zhang Liangui: Not all situations are the same. For example, if the person has a criminal record or is someone with political problems [政治上有毛病], then after they return their punishment is fairly severe. But if they innocently go to China to see relatives, or if they cross the river to buy things at a store, and then come back afterwards, the punishment is fairly simple. After the 1960s when I was working there, our production unit used to show movies. North Korean kids used to come over to watch the films, and then after watching them would head back home. At the time this basically wasn’t prevented.
Now, even though pretty strict management has been instituted, if someone just goes over purely to see relatives or to tend to some personal things, to see a doctor or something, if they come to China, yes that’s illegal, and we will arrest them and send them back, but the North Koreans will tend just to lecture them or fine them, and then let them go. But some who have political backgrounds [政治背景], for example those who have committed crimes over there, or some who have political problems, if these people flee over the border, then after being sent back they tend to be severely punished.
Host: I read an article which said that a North Korean artist fled to China to marry someone, after he was discovered he was sent back, and as soon as he crossed the border they used iron cables drilled through his shoulder bone to take him back [一过境就被用钢丝穿过肩胛骨带走了].
Zhang Liangui: I haven’t seen this article and don’t if it’s true or false. I was working on the Sino-North Korean border from 1968 to 1971. At that time, I saw people who had crossed the border being beaten after being sent back, but I never saw anyone having iron cables drilled through their shoulder bone.
Host: Do you think it’s correct that the Chinese government sends back those who have fled North Korea?
Zhang Liangui: Both sides have an agreement, and you have to act in accordance with that agreement. Of course I think there are some exceptions and special situations, and special situations need to be handled in a special way. Speaking as a particular working personnel [作为具体的工作人员来讲], doing this sort of thing would be very painful. We would send back some of these defectors back to North Korea, and they didn’t want to go back. Those scenes were really tragic.
Host: What is the Chinese government’s attitude towards Kim Jong-nam (金正男)?
Zhang Liangui: The Chinese media has never reported on Kim Jong-nam. I’ve read foreign media reports that say that Kim Jong-nam has a place in Macau (澳门), that he has residences elsewhere too, and that he often comes to the mainland to travel. But I don’t know what the specific situation is.
Host: Does North Korea have strategic value (战略价值) for China?
Zhang Liangui: Speaking from a military perspective, along with changes in weapons development and the forms of military competition, North Korea’s position in terms of our territorial strategy has declined. You only have to look a little into the wars in Iraq and Kosovo to understand how modern war is conducted. For example, if Americans want to attack China, they wouldn’t need to first occupy the Korean peninsula and then from there invade China. This is a tactic from the previous century. In reality, victory or defeat in modern war can be decided by the cruise missiles of a war ship thousands of kilometers away, by electronic warfare, without even land forces needing to exchange fire. So from a purely military standpoint, North Korea’s strategic position vis-a-vis China is quickly diminishing. But politically and psychologically, there’s still utility to the existence of this barrier.
Host: What kind of North Korea best serves the interests of China?
Zhang Liangui: I think there are at least four conditions. The first one is a denuclearized one. The second is a stable one. The third is one dedicated to development, one which concentrates its energy on developing the economy, and is dedicated to improving the lives of the people. The fourth is one that is friendly to China. These are the four conditions that China is hoping for.
I took denuclearization as the first one because the other three, strictly speaking, are the concerns of North Koreans themselves. Whether or not they’re stable, if they develop or don’t develop economically, if they’re friendly towards China or not, these are their concerns, and China can’t control them. Only the issue of whether or not they denuclearize is directly related to the interests of and has a big influence on China. Most of North Korea’s nuclear facilities are near the China-North Korea border. Their nuclear tests are conducted right by our window [在我们的窗户底下]. If there was to be an accident, our north east would be destroyed. That’s why denuclearization is the first condition.
Host: How do you view the role of popular opinion in adjusting the direction of the Chinese governments policies towards North Korea? I often hear from the public all sorts of criticisms of the government’s North Korea policy. Do you think the Chinese government should adjust it’s policies?
Zhang Liangui: China’s foreign affairs are in the middle of development and change. In the past it was a case of the government making the decisions [大政出于上], and the people basically had no right to comment on China’s foreign affairs. Because the policies towards North Korea were set from on high, the people may have had their own opinions, but basically had no influence on the upper levels of the state.
But after reform and opening, China has become involved in a process of developing from a major regional power to a major global power, and there has been an all-around fast-paced process of modernization and development. Especially in the last few years, after the 18th Party Congress, the new generation of Chinese leaders are really paying attention to popular opinion, as well as listening more often to the views of experts, and voices from the public. This is an important development in China’s implementation of its scientific strategic decision-making [这也是中国进行科学决策的一个重要发展]. I think that from now on, along with political development, the role of popular opinion in the setting of China’s foreign affairs policies will be greater and greater, as will its influence.
Host: How should China get along with North Korea? Is what’s in place now in accordance with our interests, and does it match our political culture’s North Korean policy [与我们的政治文化匹配的对朝政策]?
Zhang Liangui: Now China is developing, and as a world power, China has openly declared its desire to be a responsible great power [一个负责任的大国]. China wants to make contributions to the world and to humanity—speaking academically, China wants to provide humanity with even more public goods. This is to say, China is working well at the UN Security Council, is working well at the UN, is supporting justice, sticking to principles, and is considering the common interests of all of humanity.
For example, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and its role in nuclear proliferation ruins the core world order, upsets international relations in North East Asia, and works against the peace and stability of the region. As one of the countries of North East Asia, this situation is not something that China wants to see transpire. China has clearly articulated its commitment to denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, and its opposition to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. There’s a side to this which involves China acting as a responsible great power upholding justice, and there’s another side which involves China’s national interests.
China is a neighbor of the Korean peninsula. North Korea is developing nuclear weapons and conducting nuclear tests. If there was a nuclear accident what is China to do? These missile tests are only a few dozen kilometers from China—if the test goes awry, what happens? When you fire conventional weapons, if it misses it may injure a few people. But if there’s an accident involving nuclear weapons, it would pollute the whole of China’s north east, it would lead to permanent disaster. Nowadays there is no country like North Korea that is testing nuclear weapons in an area so densely populated. To China, this is clearly an issue of national interest. So while some people look at this and see North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons as an international relations issue, as something between North Korea and the US, and feel that China isn’t a concerned party, I think this is a judgement that is worth deliberating over.
The nuclear issue isn’t just an international relations issue, and it especially isn’t just a bilateral issue between the US and North Korea. Rather, it’s a regional security issue, and to China it’s environmental security issue. Up to the present, all the nuclear powers have conducted their nuclear tests in deserts or on uninhabited small islands. Now, it’s only North Korea that’s conducting nuclear tests in such a densely populated area, in an area so close to our border. This puts in place a huge risk. The whole of North Korea’s territory is 120 thousand square kilometers, and the whole of the Korean peninsula is 220 thousand square kilometers. If there’s a nuclear accident, where will the average people of North Korea go to live? Where will these people go to survive? China’s north east will also be deeply hurt.
Look at the explosion that happened at the nuclear power station in Chernobyl in the USSR, at the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, and you can see that this is a real problem. So in terms of this issue, China has an opinion on it. You can’t say that developing nuclear weapons is just the internal affairs of North Korea, that if they want to develop them they can develop them, if they don’t want to develop them they won’t, and that foreigners can’t interfere. This isn’t that sort of problem. Because if you develop nuclear weapons, if you repeatedly do this next to us, if you conduct nuclear tests by our window, this threatens our safety.
So in terms of this problem we really have to articulate our interests and demands to the North Koreans. This is the key. North Korea and the US are at odds, perhaps North Korea’s recent development of nuclear weapons is aimed at the US. But in reality, it’s the countries surrounding the Korean peninsula which are the first to feel threatened, at the very least feel that their environmental security is threatened.
Host: Regarding North Korea’s independent actions, should China just give up or should we take on some kind of role? These are the two opinions that netizens have brought up. One is that after we give them aid, how they spend it is up to them, we shouldn’t always try to control North Korea [我们不要老是抓着朝鲜说事], and that our foreign affairs principles are worth reconsidering. The other side says that we shouldn’t leave them alone, that to leave them alone would be to threaten our security, to play with fire [是在玩火]. What do you think?
Zhang Liangui: Depends on what you’re looking at. For example, their domestic economic development is their own domestic affair. For instance, if someone has 100 yuan, and they want to spend 80 on investing in arms or spend 80 yuan on investing in the economy, that’s their domestic affair, China can’t control it, it doesn’t have much to do with us. But there’s another issue, which is similar to the one I just brought up, which is that the nuclear issue is connected to China. If North Korea wasn’t China’s neighbor, if it was a South American country, China wouldn’t be so insistent on maintaining the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. This is something which directly involves the national interests of China, and China has an opinion on it.
Of course, China wants to conduct friendly exchanges with North Korea, express China’s interests and demands, and put forward its own suggestions. If North Korea ignores China’s interests, then China would have to enforce sanctions on North Korea. This resembles the actions that we’ve presently adopted. North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, and after each nuclear test, the UN Security Council has passed resolutions placing sanctions on North Korea. China has consistently and resolutely supported their implementation.
After North Korea conducted their third nuclear test this February, on March 7 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2094, which leveled sanctions against North Korea. This set of sanctions is much stricter than any other such sanctions which have been implemented in the past. As a permanent representative on the UN Security Council, China voted in favor of this resolution and has strictly observed it. Not long ago, China formally announced that four banks have closed the China-based accounts of North Korea. This financial sanctioning of North Korea is part of the implementation of Resolution 2094. Following that, four Chinese ministries publicly declared that they would place embargoes on a hundred products the material of which could be used by North Korea to develop nuclear weapons or missiles. These items have been clearly embargoed. This is one way that China has expressed its attitude on the matter.
Although you can say that you’re developing nuclear weapons, developing missiles, that this is your internal affair. But if your activities impact upon our interests, we’ll place sanctions on you—this is also our internal affair. The specific situation is relatively complicated, and specific issues require specific analysis. When some things don’t involve China, or when those things don’t have much relevance to China, China doesn’t need to express an opinion.
Host: This kind of influence, overall it’s a matter of sanctions. There are some netizens whose point of view is that North Korea is really weak, that perhaps the development of nuclear weapons is related to whether or not China provides North Korea with a nuclear security guarantee, and that if China provides North Korea with a nuclear guarantee, North Korea won’t develop nuclear weapons anymore.
Zhang Liangui: China provided them with a security umbrella (保护伞), and North Korea refused it. The thing that North Korea is most committed to guarding against is China’s protection. Historically, Korea has had a special relationship with China—it’s been a protectorate of China. At that time, Korea was sovereign in its internal affairs, while responsibility for its foreign affairs and national defense were assumed by China. This was especially the case during the Ming and Qing dynasties (明清时代). This kind of relationship was quite clear. Japan attacked Korea a number of times, and every time China sent troops to defend them—for example, during the Ming dynasty’s Imjin/Renchen War (壬辰战争) or the Qing dynasty’s Jiawu Sino-Japanese War (甲午中日战争), etc. After the founding the DPRK, North Korea opposed founding the country in order to “serving the great [事大].”They adopted a lot of measures to de-Sinicize themselves, such as getting rid of Chinese characters, criticizing Confucianism, re-evaluating the history of Sino-Korean relations, and re-evaluating some other aspects of history from different angles.
During the Korean War (朝鲜战争), because North Korea was facing a really difficult situation, especially after the US landed in Incheon (仁川), almost all of North Korea’s troops were annihilated. At this time they called on China for help and Peng Dehuai [彭德怀] sent troops to take part in the war. They fought for three years until the armistice was signed in 1953. In 1955, the North Korean communist party began conducting struggle sessions against “factionalists” (宗派主义) who had taken part in the anti-Japanese struggle in Yan’an (延安) and Mt. Taixing (太行山). This is what’s referred to in the history books as “cleansing the Yan’an faction” [清洗延安派].”During this process, there was a slogan—“plant Juche, oppose the serving of the great” [树立主体，反对事大]. “Serving the great” [事大] has a special meaning in Korean history—it refers to the worship of China.
Host: Aren’t there a lot of problems in the world today that can only be resolved through discussion?
Zhang Liangui: Of course discussion is the best method. Because human society has progressed up to this point, it can’t resemble the Middle Ages when everything was resolved by fists and weapons. Discussion is the process of consulting and finding a point where the interests of both sides are represented and that both sides can accept. This is the best.
But speaking plainly, there’s no one who believes that every problem can be solved just through discussion. For example, a problem as fierce as that of the Diaoyu Island (钓鱼岛) dispute between China and Japan. We suggested that we sit down with Japan to discuss things, but Japan thinks that fundamentally there is no dispute, that the islands are theirs, that there’s no need to discuss. How can you resolve this sort of situation? Resolving it through discussion is really hard. Unless Japan changes their attitude and takes the first step of admitting that there is a dispute, only then can we sit down to talk. In international politics, discussion is an important channel through which international disputes can be resolved, but it’s not the only channel.
Host: Now that North Korea already has nuclear weapons, what are we supposed to?
Zhang Liangui: We’re certainly not limited to only one approach. Presently we’ve been putting forward the resumption of the Six Party Talks, and through them get North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons, and maintain a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula. This is China’s first choice. Up to now, this is also the first choice of the US, South Korea, Russia, and Japan. They also approve of resolving this issue through discussion. But in terms of this issue, North Korea has insisted that under no circumstances will they give up nuclear weapons, that “there isn’t any North Korean nuclear issue” [朝鲜核问题根本不存在]. The possibility of discussion resolving this issue is quite small.
Host: Regarding North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, should China take some sort of action?
Zhang Liangui: Plainly speaking, the situation hasn’t reached the final stage, and no one knows how this problem will be resolved in the end. After the recent Jang incident, America’s response was thought-provoking. In January 2011, when US Secretary of Defense Gates visited Beijing, at a press conference he said that North Korea’s nuclear missiles were still in the early stages, and that within the next five years they wouldn’t be a threat to the US mainland. The real meaning is that America wasn’t nervous, that in another five years they could talk. So after with the implementation of the Obama governments policy of “strategic restraint” (战略忍耐), they’ve put aside the North Korean nuclear issue. We don’t care, we’re not paying attention to you, we’ll talk with you after you’re ready to act in good faith, and if you’re not ready to act in good faith then we won’t talk, we’ll put the issue to the side. This is what’s called strategic restraint.
After the Jang incident, the statements made by congressional spokespeople as well as Secretary of State Kerry changed. Kerry expressed shock. He used three phrases, saying that the North Korean leaderships management of this situation was “rash”, “heartless”, and “gave him a deeply unsettled feeling” (“鲁莽”、”残酷无情”、”内心有强烈不安全感”). He said that people like that having nuclear weapons in their hand was quite frightening, and that America’s so-called strategic restraint wouldn’t be the same. In the past America used to think, if North Korea satisfies America’s conditions, the US might be willing to recognize North Korea as a nuclear country. But Kerry’s recent speech reveals that the US isn’t willing to allow North Korea to possess nuclear weapons. Today US policy towards North Korea, especially their policies towards the North Korean nuclear issue, could end up undergoing a change, from the use of strategic restraint to making active attempts [积极尝试] to resolve these issues.
The other important factor that has caused this adjustment in US policy is the development of North Korea’s nuclear capacity. Last December North Korea used missile technology to launch a satellite, (and now) North Korea’s long range missiles may be able to reach as far ten thousand kilometers and threaten the US mainland. This February, after the third North Korean nuclear test, North Korea announced that it had achieved nuclear weapon miniaturization [小型化、轻型化]—that is, their usability. They already possess the technology to affix nuclear weapons to missiles. So for this reason the US is a little nervous, and says that North Korea already has the ability to threaten the US mainland. In this way, America has begun to take things more seriously.
This September, after the Syrian (chemical weapons) problem was fully resolved—that is, at the key point when the US was deciding to use military force to deal with the Syrian government—Russia put forward a proposal: if the US abandoned their plan of a military strike against Syria, the Assad government would hand over all chemical weapons, destroy their chemical weapons factories, and send all chemical weapons overseas to be destroyed, thus allowing the Assad government to remain in power. All sides accepted this compromise. Looking at the result of this compromise, it was a win-win situation: war was avoided, the chemical weapons were destroyed, and Assad remained in power. This, to the US, was really inspired. I remember that when Kerry visited China he said, this method of resolving the Syrian issue gave the US a new way of resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. Looking at things from this angle, the year 2014 may see the US more actively concentrate on the North Korean nuclear issue.
Host: In end, what are US-North Korean relations like? How does North Korea look at the US? Could the US and North Korea become closer?
Zhang Liangui: If you want to look at North Korea’s policies, if North Korea continues to resist giving up nuclear weapons, the possibility of closer US-North Korean relations isn’t large. Even if the US government put forward this sort of decision (of improving relations with North Korea), the US congress wouldn’t be willing to follow through. Of course, North Korea hopes that they will be able to hold on to their nuclear weapons and at the same time sign a peace treaty with the US and set up diplomatic relations. But these are just North Korea’s preferences. They’ve held on to the fantasy that as long as they don’t give up nuclear weapons, the US will eventually recognize this reality, in the same way that they’ve tacitly recognized India’s nuclear status, that the US will recognize North Korea’s position as a nuclear power. But if the US acknowledges this, then other countries will follow (North Korea’s example). Looking at things now, the possibility of this happening is really minuscule, especially after the Jang incident. The possibility that the US will admit that North Korea is a nuclear country almost doesn’t exist.
Host: Do you think there’s a large possibility that North Korea will return to the Six Party talks?
Zhang Liangui: Each side has their own sense of what sort of talks the Six Party talks are. Simply speaking, in a six-sided talk people’s differences are like apples and oranges [大相径庭]. China, the US, South Korea, Russia, we all understand the Six Party Talks as the Six Party Talks as they once were, so we talk of them being “revived” (重启) and of a continuation of the talks. The purpose and meaning of the original Six Party Talks was to to get North Korea to denuclearize through discussion, with each side providing various forms of compensation to North Korea in order to ensure the denuclearized status of the Korean peninsula. The Six Party Talks managed to put forward a few documents, with the most important being 2005’s “9.19 Declaration” (9·19文件). In this document, both the US and North Korea made strict commitments. North Korea committed to give up nuclear weapons and their nuclear plans, and the US committed to not carrying out any attacks against on or invade North Korea. These commitments were extremely important, and they were the most important results of the Six Party Talks. Reviving the Six Party Talks would be a question of implementing these commitments.
North Korea has also suggested having the Six Party Talks, but they have a new understanding of them. They said that in the past when we talk we didn’t have nuclear weapons, but now we’re already a nuclear power, that the original Six Party Talks have already died out [寿终正寝], that the documents put forward by the Six Party Talks, especially the 9.19 declaration, have been declared void. North Korea wants to attend the new Six Party Talks with the status of a nuclear power and won’t discuss the issue of North Korea abandoning nuclear weapons, though they will discuss a reduction in nuclear weapons. The new kind of Six Party Talks that North Korea has proposed won’t be accepted by the other powers.
So everyone is talking about whether or not to revive the Six Party Talks, but the content being proposed isn’t the same. The US supports maintaining the existing talks and opposes the completely new talks put forward by North Korea. The revived Six Party Talks they suggest have to come with conditions, with these conditions being that North Korea needs to commit to the 9.19 document, that they must observe all documents which state that North Korea has to commit to giving up nuclear weapons. In addition, in order for North Korea to express sincerity in observing the 9.19 document, they have to adopt specific policies to prove their sincerity. This is the US’ proposed X+1 condition. North Korea has proposed holding new talks, that they won’t observe any conditions or preconditions, and that the purpose and meaning of the new talks will be discussed after the talks are re-started. So in terms of reviving the Six Party Talks, we can describe it it in terms of everyone sitting down together, but it’s really difficult to think of what kind of common consensus will be adopted.
Host: The North Korean nuclear problem has been developing up until the present, does it have any relationship with the big powers (绥靖)?
Zhang Liangui: I think it has a definite relationship. At the very least people have made a series of mistakes in judgement which have, in the end, led to this. For example, there have been people in China that right from the beginning have seen the North Korean nuclear issue as a false pretext put forward by American imperialism to destabilize and bring down North Korea, that the US is playing the role of the puppet master [是美国在搞鬼]. Afterwards, when North Korea formally admitted that they were pushing forward with their nuclear plans, some people changed their tone and said that North Korea’s real intentions didn’t have anything to do with nuclear plans, but rather they were attempting to use the promotion of their nuclear plans to gain the qualifications needed to enter into talks, to force the Americans to sit down with them for talks and provide them with substantial compensation. During the Six Party Talks this kind of thinking has a relatively dominant, the idea being that those encircling North Korea would give the North Koreans some kind of compensation if North Korea abandoned its nuclear weapons.
Now it’s pretty clear that this judgement is mistaken. In reality North Korea has pursued nuclear weapons from the start, perhaps from as early as the 1950s and 1960s. North Korea’s participation in the Six Party Talks was just a way of buying time for their nuclear program. When they conducted their first nuclear test in October 2006, everyone was very surprised: all along North Korea had in fact been pursuing nuclear weapons. At this time people again stood up and said, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons is all the US’ fault. If the US had early on satisfied North Korea’s demands, if the other countries involved in the Six Party Talks hadn’t given them such miserly assistance, North Korea wouldn’t have conducted a nuclear test. It was like they had been forced into doing something dishonest [这好像是逼良为娼的味道]. In reality, this was a mistaken judgement. Afterwards, North Korea specifically announced that if people thought that they had developed nuclear weapons in order to exchange them for economic benefits or as a chip used to establish talks [提高谈判筹码], that this was just “absurd talk” [简直是无稽之谈].
There’s a political joke that goes like this. Once the North Korean leader met President Bush. Bush asked him: “What would it take for you to give up your nuclear weapons?” The North Korean leader said: “Whatever you have, I want all of it, including your nuclear weapons” [你有的，我全要，包括你的核武器]. Although this is just a political joke, it does clearly reflect what the North Korean aim has been since the beginning, to push forward piece by piece, step by step with their nuclear plans, unwilling to give up their nuclear plans for any kind of “compensation”. They’ve made use of a series of mistakes in judgement on the international stage, made clever deals [巧妙的周旋], and finally realized their objective.
Host: If North Korea conducts a fourth nuclear test, what kind of measures will China adopt?
Zhang Liangui: This is something that China’s high officials or functionaries (职能部门) need to discuss and look in to. Scholars can’t make policy. I think that if North Korea conducts a fourth nuclear test, there were certainly be a fierce response from the UN Security Council, the UN, and the international community. There will certainly be a new set of severe sanctions placed on North Korea, but what kind of sanctions these will be will depend on whether or not there is this one sentence in the declaration: “According to the UN Charter Article 7, sanctions have been placed on North Korea.” If there’s this sentence, then this issue will have already reached a fairly serious level.
Why is that? The core meaning of Article 7 of the UN Charter is that if a nation adopts actions which threaten the world peace, then the UN Security Council has the authority to place economic, political and military sanctions on them. If this sentence is written in the declaration, then the UN Security Council has the authority to adopt military sanctions against North Korea. So if after today North Korea conducts a fourth nuclear test, or a fifth nuclear test, then the key is to see whether or not this sentence is contained in the sanctions declaration. All the nations involved in this issue will have to engage in really prudent discussions.
Host: According to your estimates and judgement, how much time will Korean unification take?
Zhang Liangui: Speaking of the unification of the Korean peninsula, both the North Koreans and the South Koreans have advocated reconciliation, both have been prominent advocates for unity, both have clung to the banner of unity [抢统一的旗号]. But the big difference is who will be the one to unify the peninsula. Each side has put forward the idea that they will lead unification, or to put it specifically that they will gobble up the other side. Under present conditions, both sides refuse to budge. I think the potential for discussion and resolution is fairly small because this is a zero-sum competition. In the past both North Korea and South Korea have brought up the idea of “sovereign peaceful unification” [自主和平统一] and have opposed coerced unification—that is, unification which comes out of one side gobbling up the other. But recently over the last few years, some people have simply said “sovereign unification” (自主统一)—I don’t know why they have gotten rid of the word “peaceful” (和平). In actuality it’s now just a case of insisting upon unilateral unification.
Host: If South Korea unifies the Korean peninsula, what kind of change would there be to the security of our borders?
Zhang Liangui: Making that kind of prediction is relatively dangerous. Taking a step back, whether South Korea really unifies the Korean peninsula, or if North Korea unifies the Korean peninsula, I think no matter who unifies the Korean peninsula, as long as this new government pays attention to the lives of the people, focuses on economic development, then Korea will certainly have good relations with China.
Why is this? You can’t separate Korea’s economic development from China. China’s a huge market and you have to engage in trade with China. If you want to engage in trade then you have to be friends, you can’t be firing off guns and bombs every day—otherwise who will want to trade with you? In addition, China’s huge. Although a unified Korea would be 220 thousand square kilometers, with a population of South Korea’s 48 million and North Korea’s 24 million for a total population of 72 million, it’s still a small country compared with China. If they’re rational and politically astute, then a unified Korean peninsula wouldn’t compete with China. Being friends would be their best choice.
So I believe that the most obvious benefits to China in terms of a unified Korean peninsula are, number one, no matter who unifies the peninsula, they’ll get the Americans to leave. Some people say that South Korea has a strategic relationship with the US, would they be able to force the Americans to leave? Look at the US embassy in Seoul [汉城], every day there are South Koreans protesting. This shows just how fierce anti-American sentiment is. After unification, American forces wouldn’t be able to remain on the peninsula. Second, after unification, there wouldn’t be any confrontation between the north and the south, and the region would begin to settle down. With no Cold War conflict, the Korean peninsula might be able to become peaceful and stable. Looking at it from these angles, no matter who unifies whom, so long as its unified, it will have positive benefits for China.
Host: Should China be most concerned with America attacking China, or should China be most concerned with the surrounding region?
Zhang Liangui: Considering the issue from different angles, you can come up with different conclusions. From a macro perspective, the only country in the world which can most threaten China is the US [能够置中国于死地的只有美国]. But to put it another way, the US is a nuclear power, and China is also a nuclear power. If the US wants to bully China, if it wants to viciously attack China without suffering revenge, well, that’s not going to be possible. If the US really wants to adopt some kind of military action against China, then China would certainly use force to launch a counter attack. And precisely because of this, China and the US have formed a balance of power in which both sides have nuclear weapons, nervously watching for the possibility that either side could launch a nuclear warhead.
So the chances of there being a direct conflict between the US and China are really small, especially with economic globalization, the US and China’s interests are deeply intertwined. America is the global hegemon, and China has already becoming a world power, and an important member of the international system. China and America share a huge common interest, which is to preserve the current state of global peace and stability, especially the peace and security of the Northeast Asian region. Precisely because of this, there is extensive cooperation between China and the US on a range of issues. Looking at it from this angle, I’ve always believed that the chance of war breaking out between China and the US isn’t that great.
In contrast, a lot of China’s troubles come from the border areas. If you look at the period following the founding of the PRC, all the wars fought by China have been on its borders. There are some small countries who are used to making friends with distant states and attacking those nearby [他们习惯搞远交近攻], especially those countries with whom we have land and maritime territorial disputes. What’s more, these conflicts are really deeply ingrained, and are difficult to solve through negotiation, and easy to intensify.
Host: Can you once more summarize the impact on domestic North Korean affairs and China’s foreign policy in the wake of the Jang affair?
Zhang Liangui: From the perspective of North Korea, the Jang affair was a huge deal, not only because Jang used to enjoy such tremendous authority and organized a group of followers [组织起来了一个追随者集团], but even more importantly because the Jang affair had such a huge impact on North Korea’s political development, political stability, and its image in the eyes of the international community. First, after the Jang affair, North Korea rectified the ruling clique [要整顿执政团队] and conducted a readjustment of its cadres [进行干部队伍调整]. In the midst of ongoing this process of adjustment, whether or not they are able to maintain control of the overall situation, and smoothly manage their people and affairs, is something that is worth paying attention to. Using such a brutal method of resolving this affair is, in reality, a double-edged sword. Maybe it will make some people honest, but it might also force others into a desperate corner [有可能把他们逼到墙角孤注一掷]. So you can say that after this incident came out, people have been paying attention to the political stability of North Korea.
Therefore, this affair will certainly have an impact on the domestic and foreign policies of North Korea. Especially in the formal declarations, anonymously talking about some issues of economic cooperation with China, there could be the issue of how to go about engaging in economic cooperation with China in the future. In reality, the influence of all this isn’t just restricted to China. If things aren’t managed well with China, it will be difficult for North Korea to do a good job of setting up their 14 open economic zones. Why is this? Other nations look at how close relations are between China and North Korea, and when this situation pops up, and one side unilaterally cancels contracts without a word, then no country or enterprise will be willing to engage in economic cooperation with North Korea.
Kerry stood in front of the American people and talked about this affair. His words at the very least reflected the views of America’s higher ups on North Korea, though it’s harder to say whether in a bigger picture this reflects the views of the world at large. From now on if North Korea wants to win the support of the international community, it will be hard pressed to do so. So on the surface this is the Jang affair, but it’s influence is far greater. To China, after this incident occurred, the Chinese people’s views on North Korea have also changed.
Host: Thank you Professor Zhang for your gripping analysis today. Finally, could you please say a few words for us at Consensus Online.
Zhang Liangui: I think a lot of the articles on Consensus Online are really interesting, and their reflections on issues are quite deep. Even more important is that Consensus Online speaks honestly, with hardly any feeling of propaganda [宣传的味道比较少]. In reality, China needs this sort of honest talk—singing praise doesn’t fix problems. Deeply considering issues with a constructive attitude, looking for ways to solve problems, this is the undertaking of history, this is real patriotism [这是历史的担当，是真正的爱国爱民].
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.