Singing the same tune in Pyongyang

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Singing the same tune in Pyongyang

About a year ago today, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died. His youngest son, Kim Jong-un, succeeded to the throne of the dynastic communist regime. The international community cautiously hoped for more openness and progressive change in the opaque society.

Pyongyang repeatedly indicated it was ready to change direction. Unlike his serious and camera-shy father, North Korea’s youthful new leader surprised the world with carefree and bold ways. But the world has learned that any hopes for positive change in North Korea were just wishful thinking. The younger Kim shunned international warnings and test-fired a long-range missile disguised as a rocket.

His first year in office has underscored that the younger Kim is intent on maintaining the “military-first” legacy and policies of his father. In April, he promised that the state would no longer let its people suffer and go hungry. But he has done nothing over the last year to reform the state-controlled economic system. He devoted his time entirely to building credibility within the inner circle. He also filled key posts in the party and government with loyalists. He was recently seen heavily guarded with armed security, suggesting signs of unrest and resentment in the regime.

The international community has been most interested in nuclear weapons policy after Kim Jong-il’s death. The world carefully waited for a different direction under new leadership, but the hopes were quickly dashed. In April, Kim rewrote the constitution to define North Korea as nuclear-armed state. He pursued the second rocket launch despite a disastrous failure in April to tell the world that the country was armed with technology that could fire a nuclear warhead as far as North America. In the end, he could be as unruly as his father, confounding the international community scrambling to rein in Pyongyang.

Also like his father, Kim Jong-un spent billions of dollars on developing weapons, refurbishing government buildings in Pyongyang and polishing the personality cult of his father and grandfather instead of trying to better the lives of the impoverished North Korean people. Quality of life in North Korea is said to be worsening. Surveillance of ordinary citizens also got tougher.

Pyongyang is isolating itself from the rest of the world by maintaining the status quo as a belligerent and threatening nation. The incoming Seoul government should keep this in mind when drawing up policies regarding the North.

We have to throw away hope for voluntary change from North Korea in deciding our nation’s own priorities. Nothing is likely to change without pressure from the outside. Yet, hard-line sanctions are not be the answer. Instead, we need to develop more sophisticated strategies to motivate Pyongyang to change.
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