One reason why Chinese leaders wouldn’t join Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in denouncing North Korea for sinking a South Korean warship when they met in Beijing last month may be found in an obscure agency housed a 10-minute walk from their meeting place.
The ruling Communist Party’s International Department oversees ties with Leader Kim Jong Il’s Korean Worker’s Party and shares with the Foreign Ministry responsibility for relations with Kim’s regime in the north. The party-to-party comradeship predates the founding of both states and was cemented on the battlefield in the Korean War.
Chinese leaders have resisted condemning North Korea over the sinking for several reasons: They don’t want to undermine Kim’s regime and risk a collapse that might spark a flood of refugees, or to bolster U.S. power on the Korean peninsula. At the same time, party ties shouldn’t be underestimated as a driver of Chinese policy, said analyst Bonnie Glaser.
The International Department “has always controlled implementation of policy regarding” North Korea-China ties, said Glaser, who studies the two countries at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in an e-mail. “I fully expect that it is arguing that there is insufficient evidence to pin blame and warning of the dangers of doing so.”
For most nations, China’s Foreign Ministry is the public face of diplomacy. Its officials conduct talks with counterparts from countries such as the U.S., Russia and Japan. With North Korea, the ministry shares the stage with the International Department, which reports to the party’s Central Committee, according to an organization chart on the party’s website.
The department’s news office said it couldn’t respond to a faxed request for information about its role until late June.
The International Department’s influence was on show during Kim’s three-day trip to China in May. The Foreign Ministry, which publicizes most visits by world leaders, deferred questions to the department.
The ministry declined to confirm Kim’s presence in China, even after he was photographed on May 3 in the northeastern city of Dalian and was shadowed to Beijing by Japanese and South Korean reporters.
Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang Yu said May 6 she had “no information” and that the ministry wasn’t “the competent authority on the issue.” Only after Kim had left were his meetings with leaders made public by state media in both countries.
The department’s “objectives are to maintain communist solidarity with the North Korean party,” said Susan Shirk, a professor specializing in Chinese international relations at the University of California, San Diego, and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia. It “definitely has a different perspective than the Foreign Ministry.”
In February, Wang Jiarui, the head of the International Department, traveled to North Korea to meet Kim, according to a statement on the central government’s website. A year earlier, on a trip to Pyongyang during “China-North Korea Friendship Year,” Wang pledged that China would broaden cooperation.
China wants to maintain stability on the Korean peninsula above all else, said Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Shanghai’s Fudan University.
China depends on trade to help maintain economic growth that reached 11.9 percent in the first three months of this year and a regional war could disrupt commerce with Japan and South Korea, its No. 3 and No. 4 trading partners. China accounted for 79 percent of the North’s international commerce last year, according to Seoul-based agency Kotra. The North doesn’t release figures.
Ethnic considerations also play a role. More than 90 percent of China’s ethnic Koreans, about 1.78 million people according to Chinese census figures, live in the three northeastern Chinese provinces near North Korea, which risk being inundated with refugees in the event of a conflict on the Korean peninsula.
The International Department was founded in 1951, two years after party leader Mao Zedong announced the formation of the People’s Republic. The original mission was to build ties with Communist comrades and “other left-wing parties of the world,” according to its website.
Communists from Korea and China fought together against Japanese rule in northern China before Mao took power. China came to the aid of Kim’s father, the late leader Kim Il Sung, toward the end of 1950 by entering the Korean War.
Because the International Department is an organ of the Communist Party, which has ruled China for more than 60 years, service there can lead to higher office. State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Clinton’s counterpart during last month’s talks, headed the department from 1997-2003. Another former director, Qiao Shi, became a member of the ruling Politburo Standing Committee.
Shirk and Barry Naughton, who focuses on China’s economy and international affairs at the University of California, San Diego, say it is difficult to assess precisely how the department has tilted China’s North Korea policy.
The Chinese “can’t stand Kim Jong Il and they know that he’s a dangerous psychopath,” Naughton said. “But the strand that says ‘we stood together and fought the mighty Americans to a standstill’ is extremely powerful.”