The 18th Party Congress Crosses the Yalu: Implications for China’s North Korea Policy

All eyes were on Beijing as the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 18th Party Congress ushered in the Xi Jinping era, forcing Pyongyang to cede the title of most-watched transition in the communist world, and leaving Kim Jong Un no longer the newest ruler of an authoritarian state in East Asia. Xi, along with his six fellow Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) members, will lead a rising China during arguably the most challenging 10-year period since Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening, which set China on its current path. The new Chinese leadership is tasked with navigating through daunting challenges of official corruption, growing socioeconomic inequality, mounting social unrest and a need to rebalance the economy, among a host of other problems. Beyond these pressing issues at home, Xi and his team look out onto a world wielding greater power and influence than the CCP has ever known but also shouldering heavier expectations from the West to play a more constructive role in global affairs.One of the most important foreign policy issues Xi Jinping is expected to confront is North Korea and its nuclear program. While territorial disputes with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea greeted Xi on his first day in office, North Korea is one foreign policy curmudgeon that will likely stay with him throughout the next ten years. As Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt noted here earlier this year, China’s North Korea policy appears to have decreasing utility in serving China’s interests. However, Beijing does not seem prepared to abandon its treaty ally once and for all.

China’s new Politburo Standing Committee: (L to R) Xi Jinping, Li Kequiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli (Nov. 15, 2012). (Photo: Reuters/Xinhua/Ding Lin)

Instead, China will likely continue its support for Pyongyang through a combination of economic and political measures.[1] These efforts include providing diplomatic cover at the United Nations, donating food aid to limit the number of refugees fleeing famine, and increasing investment to prop up the regime while securing more natural resources for China’s poor industrial northeast provinces.[2] This continued support has potentially three general explanations: 1) China’s leaders view North Korea through a different strategic lens of costs and benefits misunderstood by Western analysts; 2) a fundamental misperception of China’s interests on the part of its own leaders; or 3) an inability to change policy due to bureaucratic inertia. The author suggests the true cause of China’s support is debilitating bureaucratic inertia.[3] Despite the public academic debate over Chinese policy direction since the North’s first nuclear test in 2006, Beijing’s lack of movement on the North Korea issue under Hu Jintao, highlighted by an inability to revive the dormant Six Party Talks, makes it unlikely that Xi Jinping will see Pyongyang’s value much differently and willingly abandon China’s ally anytime soon.

Xi Jinping, as the new General Secretary of the CCP and first among equals, along with Li Keqiang, his second in command as Premier, have both visited North Korea during their grooming period for the top leadership positions. Yet only Xi has made strong comments on the Sino-North Korean relationship. Commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, Xi spoke warmly of China and North Korea’s common struggle against imperialism through “a great and just war for safeguarding peace and resisting aggression” while denouncing the United States’ “brazen dispatch of troops for armed interference” in the Korean War.[4] Nevertheless, Xi did publicly oppose the 2009 test, indicating a continuation of China’s strong yet unpersuasive stance against North Korea’s nuclear program.[5] In contrast, during Li Keqiang’s October 2011 visit, he encouraged the North to develop better relations with the United States and South Korea.[6] Despite the expectation that Hu Jintao’s emphasis on collective leadership will carry over to Xi, the new leader remains the final arbiter of North Korea policy and will thus likely oversee a continuation of the status quo.

Turning to the new members of the Standing Committee, the most notable promotion was Chongqing Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang.[7] Zhang was born in Liaoning province and spent the first half of his Party career in Jilin province, including time in Yanji and as Jilin Party Secretary after studying Korean language for four years at Yanbian University.[8] Having received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Kim Il Sung University in 1980, Zhang is expected to advocate continued support of North Korea and will likely be Pyongyang’s most fervent backer.[9] Zhang is believed to be the first PSC member to have received formal education in North Korea, and while this was unlikely to factor heavily into his promotion to the PSC by Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and other backroom power brokers, his time in Pyongyang could not have gone unnoticed.

While Zhang’s formal title will likely be the head of the National People’s Congress, his seat on the PSC affords him influence over the collective decision making process for foreign policy, further enhanced by his personal experience in North Korea. Some commentators believe Zhang could serve as China’s channel to Kim Jong Un, possibly replacing the traditional role played by the head of the International Liaison Department.[10] Zhang’s governing experience at the provincial and local levels along the North Korean border may lead him to represent local pragmatic concerns in contrast to the central government’s strategic views during policy debates in the PSC. Zhang’s policy preferences may include more food aid to avoid future refugee crises and a greater emphasis on Chinese investment in the DPRK originating from northeastern provinces, since the Jilin and Liaoning provincial governments are paying for the infrastructure improvement facilitating Chinese investment. Kim Jong Un can surely be relieved that he has a long-time advocate sitting at the decision-making nexus of China’s North Korea policy.[11]

Beyond Zhang Dejiang, while no other PSC member has strongly pronounced views on North Korea, their factional affiliations suggest they will all likely follow Xi and Zhang’s lead in supporting the North. China watchers have pointed to the lack of true reformist credentials on the new PSC, and this surely makes Kim Jong Un happy. While reform-minded leaders have not led to different policies in the past (Hu and Wen at one point early in their rule were considered possible reformers), having five of seven members as strong conservatives indicates that overall policy direction, both domestic and foreign, will likely not change in the near future. Potential reformist candidates such as Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang and Organization Department head Li Yuanchao were snubbed and with them any significant hope for dramatic change in North Korea policy. The only true reformer on the PSC is Wang Qishan, but he is a finance expert relegated to the anti-corruption portfolio, likely to pursue a crackdown on corruption in the financial sector but unlikely to affect North Korea policy. One glimmer of hope for the West is that the five members behind Xi and Li will only be on the PSC for five years, since they will have reached the 70-year-old retirement age for CCP officials. This means there will be five new PSC members in 2017, possibly including reformers.

Another aspect to the new PSC is the rise of the princeling faction, namely CCP officials who are sons of revered early members of the CCP. This inherited status affords them unrivaled access to personal networks that play a key role in Chinese politics.[12] Their status as decedents from more traditional times of communism has led some, highlighted by Bo Xilai, to embrace more traditional values, harboring a romanticized view of the CCP’s founding era that may lead to a revival of Sino-North Korea ties as a hallmark of that era. This may have been one factor in princeling Xi Jinping’s uncharacteristically outspoken speech on the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. Keeping track of the ideological leanings of the princeling faction will be one important factor in discerning China’s North Korea policy.

Among other appointments not covered in the front-page headlines, Meng Jianzhu’s promotion from Minister of Public Security to a member of the CCP Central Committee as the head of the Central Political and Legislative Committee suggests he will continue to influence North Korea policy. While the position was downgraded from a PSC slot with predecessor Zhou Yongkang’s retirement this year, Meng has played an instrumental role in conveying China’s support for Kim Jong Un’s succession and will remain in a position to do so.[13] Wang Jiarui, the head of the International Liaison Department, is expected to follow precedent and succeed his predecessor Dai Bingguo as one of the leading members of the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group, which serves as the advisory body for the PSC’s foreign policy decisions. That position will afford him continued influence over North Korea policy.[14] Both Meng and Wang also support the continuation of Beijing’s pro-DPRK policy, so these promotions reinforce the author’s opinion that the status quo will remain unchanged.

Across the border, Kim Jong Un must be very pleased with how the leadership transition has played out. In a sense, as Chinese domestic politics goes, so does North Korea policy, and Kim now knows he remains in a comfortable position to be the Korean tail wagging the Chinese dog for some time to come. The new North Korean leader has long been planning for the Chinese transition, with some commentators even claiming he deferred a third nuclear test this summer at China’s behest out of sensitivity for their difficult task of bargaining for the new leadership.[15] To reinforce the Kim-Xi relationship, Kim Jong Un sent a congratulatory message to the new Chinese leader immediately following his official promotion, and Kim will be eager to meet with him soon.[16] With China’s support of North Korea reportedly having come down to a five to four vote in favor of the North after the 2009 nuclear test, the composition of the PSC is the most influential factor affecting China’s North Korea decision-making. While this reported 2009 vote does not mean a Supreme Court-style swing would be possible if more reform-minded PSC members favored changes in China’s North Korea policy, the seeming lack of any voices advocating for change suggests the West will have to continue waiting, and Kim will continue smiling.

[1] For a more detailed discussion of China’s North Korea policy in the post-Kim Jong Il era, see: Zhu Feng and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “Chinese Policy Toward North Korea in the Post-Kim Jong Il Era,” Korea Review 2:2, November 22, 2012,

[2] Despite the public nature of the Xiyang Group’s unceremonious exit from North Korea in March 2012, Chinese investment into the North will likely continue unabated.

See: Michael Rank, “Chinese company vents venom on North Korea,” Asia Times, August 15, 2012,

[3] For a more detailed analysis of China’s North Korea decision-making process, see: Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “Chinese Bureaucratic Politics and Sino-North Korean Relations: Dynamics and Implications,” SinoNK, August 5, 2012, (link removed due to malware).

[4] Brazen (悍然) is the same word Hu Jintao personally penned to decry the North’s first nuclear test in 2006 and is usually reserved for China’s enemies. For the toned-down English language coverage of Xi Jinping’s speech, see: “China commemorates 60th anniversary of participation in Korean War,” People’s Daily, October 26, 2010, For the unedited and much harsher original Chinese language transcript of Xi’s speech, see: “习近平:在纪念中国人民志愿军抗美援朝出国作战60周年座谈会上的讲话 (Xi Jinping: Speech Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army and the War of Resisting America and Assisting Korea),” Xinhua, October 5, 2010,

[5] Heungkyu Kim, “From a Buffer Zone to a Strategic Burden: Evolving Sino-North Korea Relations during the Hu Jintao Era,” The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 22.1 (2010): 68. See also: Russell Hsiao, “Xi Jinping Follows Hu’s Footsteps to Pyongyang, China Brief 8.13 (2008). See also: Zhu Feng, “China’s North Korea Contradictions,” Project Syndicate, December 2, 2010.

[6] “Li Keqiang Pushes North Korea to Improve U.S. Ties, Invites Kim to China,” Bloomberg, October 24, 2011,

[7] The new PSC shrank from nine members under Hu Jintao back to seven under Xi Jinping, which represents a return to past precedent as Jiang Zemin’s PSC also only had seven members. For an excellent yet concise introduction to the new Chinese leadership, see: Cheng Li, “China’s Top Future Leaders to Watch,” The Brookings Institution, November 15, 2012,

[8] For Zhang’s official biography, see: “Zhang Dejiang–Member of Standing Committee of Political Bureau of CPC Central Committee,” Xinhua, November 15, 2012,

[9] For a short Western biography with factional affiliation, see: Cheng Li, “China’s Top Future Leaders to Watch: Zhang Dejiang,” The Brookings Institution, November 15, 2012,

[10] Roger Cavazos, “Stability: The New Paramount Leader,” The Nautilus Institute, March 15, 2012,

[11] For a more in-depth look at Zhang Dejiang, see: “China faces to watch: Zhang Dejiang,” BBC, March 2, 2012,

[12] Ian Johnson, “Dynasty of Different Order Is Reshaping China,” New York Times, November 13, 2012,

[13] For a more detailed analysis of Meng and Zhou’s role in supporting the succession to Kim Jong Un, see: Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “Stakeholder Spotlight: Zhou Yongkang, North Korea, and the Ministry of Public Security,” SinoNK, September 4, 2012, (link removed due to malware).

[14] Cheng Li, “China’s Midterm Jockeying: Gearing Up for 2012 (Part 5: Party Apparatchiks),” China Leadership Monitor, September 26, 2011,

[15] “Japanese Reports Claim China Conditions Kim Jong-un’s Visit,” Xinhua, July 16, 2012,

[16] Carlos Tejada, “Great Success! North Korea’s Kim Congratulates Xi,” Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2012,

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