Within China, entrenched political rivals of leader Xi Jinping share common ground with North Korea’s totalitarian Kim regime, and appear to have been leveraging the threat of nuclear weapons even at the expense of Chinese national security.
For years, leaders affiliated with former Communist Party boss Jiang Zemin had a stake in maintaining North Korea’s nuclear threat as a distraction from their own human rights abuses, as well as to tie the hands of their political rivals, according to an expert in Chinese affairs.
Today, Pyongyang’s nuclear brinksmanship has made headlines, and stirred U.S. and Chinese leaders into a surprising degree of collaboration when Xi and Trump met in Florida to discuss the crisis. But such discussions must take into account the previous ties between China and North Korea, fostered by former leader Jiang.
At 90, Jiang is more a symbol for corruption and human rights abuses than he is a participant in the nation’s contemporary governance.
But one generation away is a sprawling clique of Party cadres that are on the retreat as they resist attempts by the Xi administration to purge them from the influential positions Jiang and his allies provided them.
Photos from 2004 show Jiang and late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in fraternal embrace. Politicians associated with Jiang, including three of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee that directs the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), have had particularly close links with Pyongyang.
Standing committeemen Zhang Dejiang and Zhang Gaoli (no relation) studied in Pyongyang and have made several state visits to North Korea, hinting at their influence in Sino–North Korean cooperation. Zhang Dejiang heads the National People’s Congress and has the portfolio for Hong Kong affairs. He built his career across the border in northeastern China.
The third Jiang associate currently serving on the politburo, Liu Yunshan, is China’s propaganda chief. He has made multiple high-profile visits to North Korea in his capacity as director of a CCP executive committee dedicated to the “construction of spiritual civilization.”
Under the auspices of the CCP’s International Liaison Department, headed by Jiang’s protégé Wang Jiarui from 2003 to 2015, many Chinese companies traded with North Korea despite U.N. sanctions.