Reform Sprouts in North Korea?

North Korea, among the world’s most secretive, isolated and impoverished countries, is led by the world’s youngest head of state. Analysts are uncertain about many details of Kim Jong Un’s life, including his age or the extent of his education with a stint in Switzerland. Since taking power in April, the young leader has taken steps to transform his nation: dismissing the country’s top military leader, starting a guest worker program for North Koreans in China, and emphasizing economic development over military politics. Many analysts had predicted failure for the new young leader who, unlike his father, Kim Jong Il, did not have years of preparation. Most refreshing, suggests Korea specialist John Delury who teaches at Yonsei University, is young Kim’s frank acknowledgment of domestic challenges. Delury contends that Kim may be following the model of China’s Deng Xiaoping to reform North Korea, preparing its people for engagement with the rest of the world. – YaleGlobal

Reform Sprouts in North Korea?

Kim Jong Un’s timid glasnost may signal shift in emphasis from military to economic development
John Delury
Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mickey Mouse glasnost? North Korea’s new supremo Kim Jong Un with his bride, Ri Sol Ju (top); the leaders enjoy dancing by Disney characters (middle); musicians display sartorial boldness (bottom)

SEOUL: The ghost of Deng Xiaoping may lurk in Pyongyang, with signs that the world’s youngest head of state is trying to shake up his isolated and impoverished nation. From the sudden dismissal of his top military leader, on grounds of “illness,” to a pop music show featuring American icons Mickey Mouse and Rocky Balboa, to a novel guest- worker program allowing North Koreans to earn hard currency in China, Kim Jong Un is taking a firm grip on power even as he loosens strictures and tells officials to try new things.

With a million-man army and nuclear weapons program, North Korea remains a source of uncertainty and instability, with many questions about whether Kim Jong Un can bring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea peaceably into the 21st century. But the example of Deng Xiaoping’s early efforts to modernize and moderate a deeply ideological China suggests promising parallels.

Some North Korea experts didn’t expect the young heir to make it this far. After Kim Jong Il died in December, former National Security Council Director Victor Cha gave North Korea “several months” before total collapse. After all, young Kim’s shotgun succession had been rushed into action only in 2008 – unlike his father who had been carefully groomed for decades before becoming the Supreme Leader. Pyongyang’s desperate transfer of power to the world’s only communist king was expected to be the straw that would, at long last, break the camel’s back.

No such luck. North Korea is still there, with the young, inexperienced Kim at the helm. He’s been an exceptionally active leader, giving major policy speeches and pressing the flesh with citizens, soldiers, cadres and schoolchildren. Of course, his reign is still in its infancy. But already Kim’s leadership style, political inclinations and attitude toward the world are starting to come into focus – and a big surprise is that Kim appears to be heading in what he describes as a “new, creative and enterprising” direction, nudging the national compass away from a fixation on his father’s “military-first politics” toward a Deng-like pragmatic emphasis on economic development.

An early sign that Kim would undertake governance differently than his father was the simple matter of giving a speech. While his father never let the people hear his voice, Kim Jong Un gave a televised oration in April, then another in June. Similarly, Kim has used the tradition of so-called on-site guidance visits, which put the Supreme Leader in direct contact with the North Korean people, to signal a new approach. His father’s style on guidance visits was withdrawn, almost painfully awkward – as captured in the farcical website Kim Jong Il Looking At Things.  The son is infinitely more at ease among his subjects. Instead of limiting himself to aloof observation, he interacts up-close with average people. Children surround him for photo-ops, soldiers throw their arms around him weeping in joy, and elderly principals affectionately interlock arms with him in traditional Korean style. He smiles jovially throughout it all, reciprocating and even initiating physical intimacy, projecting an aura of energy and enthusiasm.

Kim’s human touch caught a wave of global media attention after he showed up at a pop music concert sitting next to a stylish woman, later revealed to be his wife, Ri Sol Ju, as they watched Disney characters dance in front of a screen playing clips of the film Rocky IV. More striking were the black miniskirts worn by the band’s singers. Easily dismissed as epiphenomenal, such stylistic changes are reminiscent of the early days of China’s momentous transformation in the 1970s and 1980s. Changes to the national image projected by the state media in a political system as highly stylized as North Korea’s hint at underlying rethinking of governance, economics and foreign policy.

Indeed, there are signs in Kim’s speeches and guidance visits that the substance is changing along with the style. In a lengthy talk given to senior party leaders in April, Kim called on officials to try new ideas and be less ideological. “Officials should work with a creative and enterprising attitude… [and] resolutely do away with the outdated ideological viewpoint and backward method and style of work.” It was a distinct echo of Deng’s famous December 1978 speech that launched China’s reforms, in which he called on party members to be “pathbreakers who dare to think, explore new ways and generate new ideas.”

Kim followed up his speech with a highly publicized guidance visit to an amusement park in Pyongyang, where, clearly unamused, he scolded officials for its derelict state. Fixing the park, Kim said, “should be made an occasion of removing outdated ideological point of view from the heads of officials and ending their old work-style.” Kim then tapped the cabinet premier and a senior military figure to personally supervise the renovations. The park is now a demonstration project for Kim’s demand that officials be “creative and enterprising.”

Criticizing the dilapidated state of a funfair is just one of many examples of Kim’s acknowledgment of domestic problems, refreshingly frank by North Korean standards, and could portend a major shift in governing philosophy.    

The international community witnessed the North’s new realism in April, when Pyongyang admitted failure of a rocket launch. Under Kim Jong Il, long-range rocket tests had been declared a complete success despite having fallen short of their targets. But this time, with CNN reporting live from Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang anticlimactically conceded that the launch had failed for technical reasons.

The global media herd raced off to their next story. But inside North Korea, this admission was just the beginning of a new spirit of acknowledging problems. It’s not glasnost yet, but Kim has talked openly about North Korea’s food problem, consumer goods problem and the importance of “fully solving the problems arising in developing the economy and improving the people’s living standards.”

Kim even drew attention to official connivance in selling off mineral wealth to the first Chinese buyer, complaining in a speech on land management that, “Some people are now attempting to develop the valuable underground resources of the country at random on this or that excuse to export them for not a great sum of foreign exchange.” In that late April speech, he also raised the problem of the military’s need to be “self-supporting,” suggesting military spending cuts in order to focus on the “people’s economy.”  

Although Kim is not yet talking about “market socialism,” so far, he’s leaving the small private markets alone, encouraging special economic zones and sending officials abroad for economic learning trips. Along with the new guest-worker program that will reportedly allow tens of thousands of North Koreans to go earn better wages in China, economic policy shows signs of increasing pragmatism, experimentalism and transparency – hallmarks of China’s epic shift from Mao to Deng.

The foreign policy implications of this budding Deng-ist spirit in Pyongyang are not yet clear. Besides, Seoul, Washington and Beijing are preoccupied by their own upcoming presidential elections and party congresses. As the dust of domestic politics settles over the course of this year, a clearer picture will emerge of whether Kim Jong Un’s creative and enterprising spirit can breathe new life into stalled efforts to bring prosperity to North Korea and peace to Northeast Asia.


John Delury is an assistant professor of East Asian Studies at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies and a senior fellow of Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations. He has taught Chinese history and politics at Columbia, Brown, and Peking University, and received a PhD in Chinese history at Yale.

Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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