Glimmer of hope from the NorthNew North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is looking at economic reforms enacted by other nations, including China, according to a high-ranking official from Pyongyang speaking in an interview with the Associated Press. His choice of the word “reforms” suggests a noticeable departure from what his father said. The “dear leader,” Kim Jong-il, used to say emphatically: “Don’t expect me to take a reform path.”
In fact, Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s older half-brother, had attributed his shameful elimination from the competition for power and his life in de facto exile overseas to his mistake of stressing the importance of opening and reform to his father. Yet a member of the North’s recalcitrant leadership has said the taboo word barely one month after Kim’s death.
It’s hard to confirm if the official - Yang Hyong-sop, a politburo member and vice president of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly - actually used the word in the interview. Pyongyang has persistently used such terms as economic “improvement” instead of “reform.” Improvement, in the North, refers to a pursuit of foreign investment via a partial opening confined to a special economic zone. Kim Jong-un’s alleged remarks - “looking at economic reforms enacted by other nations” - could indicate that Pyongyang is preparing to accept other socialist nations’ reform experiences.
Before his death, Kim Jong-il likely determined the economic policy direction for his son after having paid two visits to China in 2010 to study its capitalist experiment. The interpretation is backed by Pyongyang’s head secretary Moon Kyong-dok, who said that Pyongyang intended to learn about China’s capitalist experiment. All of this points to the possibility that Pyongyang has kick-started a reform move.
That analysis raises the optimistic prospect that the North is finally trying to change after all the years of isolation. Of course, we can hardly expect the reclusive regime to launch a massive reform drive. But the fact that the younger Kim spent his early life in Europe seems promising.
Whether it is about reform or improvement, we hope that such a change will ultimately bring about a substantial enhancement in South-North relations, not to mention a successful resolution of the thorny nuclear issue. Furthermore, we hope Pyongyang will accept global standards so as to attract foreign investment. We hope the young Kim’s alleged interest in what other countries did to revive their moribund economies translates into real action.