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China’s got a new face! Last Thursday morning, the next generation of Chinese leaders was introduced to the world with few, if any, surprises. Slightly newer old faces replaced even older ones, but China’s ‘body’ looks set to remain the same. And so does China’s policy towards North Korea.
If you don’t know by now, here’s a rapid-fire rundown of what happened amid the fanfare of red carpets, pots of large flowers, and big murals of mountains in the background:
Xi Jinping succeeded Hu Jintao as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and was announced as Chairman of the Central Military Commission, while Li Keqiang will succeed Wen Jiabao as Premier early next year (for now he is simply the second-ranked figure in the party and remains Executive Vice Premier). The Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the most important policy making body in the country, reduced its membership from nine to seven, though even this was widely expected by the time members emerged for the first time.1 Jiang Zemin had previously held onto the spot of Chairman of the Central Military Commission for two more years after Hu Jintao became General Secretary, but either because of lack of support or lack of desire (or a little of both) Hu decided to relinquish both posts at the same time.
North Korea was quick to release a statement from Kim Jong Un congratulating Xi Jinping on his new roles, as well as the successful holding of the 18th Party Congress. In addition, Kim Jong Un repeated the standard line on Sino-North Korea relations, saying
“The DPRK and China are friendly neighbors linked by the same mountain and rivers and the DPRK-China friendship with long historic roots is the common precious wealth associated with the wisdom and efforts of the leaders of the elder generation of the two parties and two countries.”
Despite the new leadership, the change is highly unlikely to have an effect on China’s North Korea policy. Though the two states will always be able to call on a shared history and culture in their diplomatic rhetoric, the strategic rationale that supports China’s policy remains fairly strong. Many argue that, in the increasingly unlikely event of North Korea’s collapse, the Chinese fear two things most of all: a huge influx of North Korean refugees crossing the North Eastern border, and the prospect of US troops working under a unified Korea in immediate proximity to Chinese borders.
Given the alternative, the Chinese leadership has pursued a fairly rational policy towards the North, providing just enough aid to prop up the regime in exchange for what some argue is a buffer state on the Korean peninsula. This has been paired with repeated and continuing efforts to convince the North Koreans to reform like the Chinese did in the late-1970s (don’t forget, economic development in North Korea means economic development in China’s more impoverished North East. A richer North Korea creates a nicely cornered market for China unlike that of a possibly Southern-dominated unified Korea).
Though economic reform has thus far not been forthcoming, trade traffic has still exploded since the beginning of the new millennium, from an estimated $488 million (USD) in 2000 to $5.6 billion (USD) in 2011 (see below). While far below the level of bilateral trade between China and South Korea, it is likely enough to convince China that slowly but surely the North Koreans are coming around. Talk of agricultural reform and a more recent push to make the Rason SEZ a success (it’s been a special economic zone for two decades with little to no growth) will also be seen as positive steps, even if reform and token gestures towards reform have failed to materialise.
There are a few connections between the new leadership and North Korea, but none that would indicate a potential policy shift.2 The most obvious connection is Zhang Dejiang’s, who not only grew up in North Eastern China, but studied economics at Kim Il Sung University and speaks Korean. His career up until the late 1990s was also spent in Jilin Province, home to China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture – where the street signs are in both languages that combine to form a confusing colloquial hotpot of Chinese-influenced Korean. The rest of the leadership circle, except for Wang Qishan, have all previously met with Kim Jong Il and other North Korean elites at various points in the past decade, but spoke only in platitudes.
If change is to occur, it will have to come from the lower-levels and work its way up. While China has continued to back North Korea over the past decade, North Korea’s unfavourable international standing may have prompted some to reconsider the North’s usefulness. An International Crisis Group report calls this a battle between the “traditionalists” in the Chinese military and party, and the “strategists” in Chinese think tanks and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Though the strategists argue the time has come to take a harder line towards North Korea, including using aid as a means to influence Pyongyang’s behavior, the traditionalists are in a stronger position. As a high level Chinese diplomat quipped in the report, “Our mindset may have changed, but the length of our border has not.”
Therefore the safest assumption (and assumptions are really all that we can make in the face of two such opaque leadership circles) is that, barring a truly major event, Chinese policy on North Korea will remain the same for the foreseeable future. In many ways, this puts China in the same boat as the United States and South Korea, although South Korea’s policy looks set to alter course after this December’s upcoming presidential election. Ironically, despite being incredibly under-developed compared to its immediate neighbours, North Korea arguably remains in the driver’s seat, leaving the other three countries struggling to anticipate what will come next.
1. The complete PBSC is Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli. See here for more info.
2. To be fair, this can be said about almost all the major policy decisions the PBSC will handle in the next few years. Getting to the top in China means building a strong network of support among elites and keeping your head low, making it nearly impossible to predict what policy will be like. As Simon Rabinovitch says, the honest answer is likely “only time will tell.”
(Sources for graph: Years 2000-2009 – Nanto, Dick K., Mark E. Manyin, and Kerry Dumbaugh. “China-North Korea Relations.” Congressional Research Service (January 22, 2010).; 2010 – “Inter-Korean Trade Falls to Half of North-China Trade in 2010.” Yonhap (March 23, 2011). http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2011/03/23/17/0401000000AEN20110323000900320F.HTML. ; 2011 – “N. Korea-China Trade Jumps 62 Pct in 2011: Data.” Yonhap (January 31, 2012). http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2012/01/31/29/0401000000AEN20120131003300315F.HTML.)