[Viewpoint] Looking for a historical turning pointNorth Korea’s young new leader, Kim Jong-un, is in many ways distancing himself from the traditional out-of-reach leadership style of the Kim family dynasty. His string of public appearances appear to be incompatible with the reclusive and rigidly controlled state. The world media was awed by the photos of Kim and his young and equally approachable wife beaming and clapping at a stage performance of the Moranbong Band with Mickey and Minnie Mouse, iconic characters from the country’s “sworn” enemy state of America.
Kim’s replacement of Ri Yong-ho, his patron and hawkish military army chief, came abruptly. The leadership style of the heir to the third-generation dynastic rule in the Galapagos-like isolated society is surprising, yet suggests a positive sign.
Governments and North Korean experts are scurrying to divine the implications of the extraordinary actions and military reshuffle from the youthful North Korean leader for signs of change from the Pyongyang regime. Some opt to interpret them as veering away from military-first policies to a pragmatic economic direction, while skeptics believe they are no more than a propagandist show to divert the attention of its impoverished populace and reinforce Kim’s inherited authority.
A different interpretation can be made of the same scene by looking through a different ideological lens. But we need to look and study the new leader with a more neutral, unbiased and empirical eye by sticking to the facts - his remarks, actions and diplomatic activities.
In his April 15 public speech to commemorate his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday, Kim Jong-un pledged to the public that “the party will see to it that the people no longer have to tighten their belt .?.?. We now have to enter the path of building an economically strong nation.” The official communist party newspaper Rodong Sinmun supported Kim’s platform with its June 29 editorial by saying the nation would have to leap to the ranks of economically powerful states based on its national strength built on military-first politics. In his talks with the party’s central committee executive members, Kim reportedly stressed the need to mark a turning point to improve the lives of ordinary people and build a strong economy.
The state television footage of the leader and his wife on the front seat enjoying a Western-style song and dance performance from Mickey Mouse and friends and the leggy girl band has created a huge sensation around the globe. It would have been unimaginable under the earlier generation’s rule. The famous Disney character is an archetype of what the Pyongyang regime condemns and detests most about American commercialism and capitalism. While recognizing the need and urgency of opening and reform, the North Korean leadership has been resisting opening up and importing foreign capital and technology in fear of the epidemic of influence over its people from the principles of capitalism.
The new leader, however, appears to be eager to introduce American culture that had long been stigmatized as depraved and exploitative. The iron fortress that has been keeping North Koreans economically, socially and culturally secluded from the rest of the world may finally be letting in light.
The diplomatic activities to pave the way for a stronger economy have been more notable. Kim Yong-nam, chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, visited Southeast Asia twice in May and July. He was accompanied by a head of the joint-venture investment committee and the minister of light industry, suggesting the purpose of his visits.
In Indonesia, which still maintains friendly ties with North Korea, Kim Yong-nam handed over an invitation to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono from Kim Jong-un to visit Pyongyang. Kim Yong-il, the party’s secretary of foreign affairs, also visited Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar around the same time, while the minister of foreign affairs, Park Ui-chun, in July attended the regional forum of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia and held bilateral meetings with ministers from states rich with natural resources or learnable economic models.
From Indonesia and Myanmar, North Korea hopes to secure food supplies and from Singapore and Vietnam, learn economic development models. The broadening of diplomatic scope could help North Korea lessen its dependency on China.
From the diplomatic ventures, Kim’s words vowing to free his people from poverty may not be entirely in vain. Kim spent his teen years in Switzerland. He has had first-hand experience in one of the world’s wealthiest democratic societies. It should not be entirely surprising that Kim bears a sincere desire to bring changes to his reclusive homeland. The hardcore military poses the biggest challenge and stumbling block to Kim’s wishes. Ri’s ousting may have been inevitable to demonstrate his will toward reform.
The surprising feat by North Korean athletes at the London Olympic Games may also help place the unabashed young North Korean leader in a favorable light with the foreign community. Kim will likely seek to mend ties with Washington after visiting Beijing. A U.S. tour by the Pyongyang Philharmonic Orchestra to reciprocate the 2008 New York Philharmonic concert in the North Korean capital could pave the way for budding diplomacy with the U.S.
On the South Korean front, Kim may want to wait until the presidential election in December, but his allowing Hyundai Asan officials to visit Mount Kumgang raises hope for a reconciliatory direction. By next February, new leaders will be seated in the two Koreas as well as in four powers with interests in the Korean Peninsula. If North Korea proceeds with meaningful changes under Kim at the helm without any provocative attempts such as a nuclear test, we could probably anticipate a historical turning point in the region next year.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Young-hie