[Viewpoint] Riding the positive wave

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[Viewpoint] Riding the positive wave

Japanese sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto claims to have served as the household cook for the reclusive dynastic family of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. He boasted of red-carpet treatment in Pyongyang during his stay there at the invitation of young heir Kim Jong-un. He told reporters upon return last weekend from Pyongyang that the new supreme leader of North Korea threw a party especially for him. It was Fujimoto’s first return to Pyongyang in 11 years.

The dinner banquet for Fujimoto had about 20 guests and was hosted by the leader and his young wife as well as Kim’s younger sister Yo-jong. The new leader, who has been baffling and entertaining North Korean watchers with a string of bold and carefree comments and public appearances that helped to reinvent the hermit state’s image, fed their curiosity with his generosity toward a foreign cook from his childhood days.

North Korean watchers have been parsing over every little detail involving the new leader to decipher the direction and future policy of the isolated and nuclear-armed regime. Some interpret the latest news with the Japanese cook as a sign that Kim has gained enough confidence at home to be in an entertaining mood. Skeptics call it part of a carefully choreographed publicity stunt by the Kim family.

Whatever the motive may be, it is rare for a state leader, especially from an opaque regime like North Korea, to invite a foreign cook and throw a party especially for him.

The Japanese man, who has written several books on North Korea and its royal family, was the first to single out the third son as potential successor to the throne. In “Kim Jong-il’s Cook,” published in Japan in 2003, Fujimoto said Kim Jong-il was expected to name his youngest son Jong-un as his heir over his eldest Jong-chol. The late ruler favored Jong-un among the two sons he had with his third wife Ko Young-hui because of their similarities in appearance. Intelligence officials paid little attention to his remarks then as few knew anything about Jong-un. Kim may have paid special attention to the cook with the latest invitation as a token of appreciation for his rare “insight.”

The new North Korean leader, who is believed to have not yet reached the age of 30, has so far been stunningly unorthodox by North Korean standards. He strolled in an amusement park leisurely arm-in-arm with an equally youthful and carefree wife and enjoyed a roller-coaster ride. He accompanied a mysterious woman who later was confirmed as his wife everywhere and unabashedly expressed intimacy as a newlywed couple. The first lady, Ri Sol-ju, was with him even on a tour of a military camp. In Kim’s 13 public appearances over the last month, his wife was at his side on nine occasions.

The state television footage of Kim and a crew of military uniform-clad officials watching and clapping at stage performances featuring iconic Disney characters Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh was almost mind-boggling. The performances were picked up and spread worldwide on YouTube. They also showed women performers in strapless gowns and miniskirts dancing to Western music. It was dumbfounding to watch North Korean state television broadcasting a performance with tunes of “world children’s songs” with Disney characters - more or less archetypical cultural symbols of American consumerism and capitalism that the hardcore socialist state has long vehemently condemned and resisted.

The unabashed image of the baby sister of Kim Jong-un spotted in North Korean state television clips is equally surprising. Jaunty Yo-jong was caught on television running around, laughing and clapping in the background during Kim’s public appearances. She is said to have resided and studied in Switzerland with her two older brothers. She may have visited Disneyland parks in Tokyo and Paris.

Yo-jung, who is said to have gained a senior post at the Workers’ Party after her father’s death, is reportedly behind the engaging makeover of her brother and the Mickey Mouse performance. The young generation of the Pyongyang regime is bringing sweeping changes, including Western culture and ways, into the Galapagos-like society,

Local authorities are mixed in their responses to the North Korean leader’s highly publicized moves. Some see them as positive signs for opening, while others are reserved, having been fooled a number of times by the image-making politics of North Koreans. The events may all be a new type of propaganda campaign to divert attention and hype the Kim family’s dynastic rule. But the market and investors welcome the new image of North Korea. Stock prices connected to North Korea are on the rise.

There is no need to be too hopeful, but the signs are hardly negative. What is important is using the momentum in a favorable way. The outgoing Lee Myung-bak administration may not have much time left in its tenure to sharply change the framework on inter-Korean relations. But President Lee can use his Independence Day address to send a message welcoming the positive signs of change in Pyongyang.

His words may not carry weight, but they could set the tone for improved inter-Korean relations during the next administration.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok


by Bae Myung-bok
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