Cautious Changes Stir the Pot in North Korea

Like a big ship, even a country ruled by dictator cannot turn on a dime. It takes time and careful planning to change direction. Is it possible that a course change may be happening in repressive North Korea under its new leader Kim Jong Un?

There are two sides as to whether real change is in the offing. Optimists point to economic reforms announced by North Korea on June 28. Though details are still vague, North Korean factories and commercial entities will reportedly now have more autonomy to select what they buy and greater freedom to set the prices for what is produced - small potatoes for businessmen living here in the U.S., but significant for a country steeped in Soviet style central planning. To strengthen the argument that North Korea is embarking on reform, many point to Kim Jong Un’s own words, in his first public speech to the North Korean people on April 15, 2012 where he declared that his people “will never have to tighten their belts again;” and while hosting a visiting Chinese delegation on August 2, when he stated his top priority was “developing the economy and improving the people’s livelihoods.”

Skeptics understandably say this is all hogwash. Kim Jong Un’s April speech emphasized strengthening the military as his “first, second and third” priority, signaling business as usual. Nor has talk of economic opening panned out in the past. The much touted economic reforms in 2002 – less central planning, more autonomy for management, and increases in prices and wages, to name a few–were rolled back in subsequent years. The government also attempted to choke a flourishing black market and the surge of a prospering few with an ill-conceived currency devaluation in 2009. Doubters also reasonably argue that the North Koreans have succeeded over the past twenty years in blackmailing the West and China to extract economic benefits that in the end enable the regime to keep the elite wedded to the status quo and the regime intact; they see no incentive for North Korea to alter this “winning” formula of giving lip-service to reform without real change.  So long as the North perceives China as watching North Korea’s back for China’s own internal interests, the North may see no need to stop at playing a game of nice, then bad, and then nice again.

Both are reasonable interpretations. Because of North Korea’s complexity, however, it probably makes sense for us to broaden our perspective, taking into account the unusual things going on at of late north of the 38th parallel, some of which are truly unprecedented.  

From the real-politick (the ouster of the North Korea’s military chief), to the superficial (shorter skirts appearing in Pyongyang), to the absurd (Kim Jong Un’s state TV appearance with a cavorting Mickey and Minnie Mouse), an unfamiliar rhythm of activity is emerging. For the first time, North Korea admitted that its last missile test was a failure (the previous three failures were declared successes), and then there’s the unprecedented “coming out” of Kim Jong Un’s wife, a visitor to South Korea and Japan, who has been getting the Kate Middleton treatment in South Korea. Are these (and other) events somehow connected?

They may well be. Here’s why I am intrigued: I was working at the State Department in October 2000 when Kim Jong Il’s second in command and North Korean military hero, Marshall Jo Myong Nok, came to Washington. He first met with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at Foggy Bottom and later with President Clinton in the Oval Office. Here’s a photograph evidencing that meeting. Interestingly, Marshall Jo actually changed his clothes for his meeting with the President from a western suit and tie (with Albright) to a conspicuous full-dress military uniform, with a chest of medals and commendations. Of course, this style of dress played into the popular U.S. perception of a bombastic and aggressive North Korea puffing up to a U.S. president, which was certainly possible. But, I later became convinced the photograph was not meant for the American people, but for the North Korean people who have been conditioned from birth to fear and loathe the United States. The photo’s purpose was to signal to North Korean people that change is coming – if the head of the military (the entity that has always protected the North from destruction) could meet with leader of its enemy and be willing to end hostilities, then the North Korean people could also begin to think differently.

In the case of North Korea, style can indeed be substance and a precursor to change – but it also can be just fluff. I continue to believe that in 2000, there was a real chance of cutting a deal with North Korea. Jo’s photo op was in ways a concrete indicator that the regime was laying the domestic groundwork for such a possibility. North Korea had not yet successfully tested a nuclear device, and it made sense that the regime would be open to giving up what it did not yet have for the right set of benefits.

In 2012, the situation is of course, vastly different – and more intractable than ever. With nuclear weapons already developed, I have no illusions that the North is willing to give them up anytime soon. Moreover, North Korea’s belligerent missile test earlier this year has closed off chances of productive talks happening over the short-term. It is still way too early to tell whether the seemingly random North Korean events of the last several months have implications for U.S. policy and our long quest to stop North Korea’s nuclear program. It is also premature to determine whether the views of the young Kim and his cohorts  are simply a reflection of his late father’s or are perhaps more flexible. But subtle shifts in behavior can often signal bigger changes in national priorities, which we must be open to exploiting, and this eclectic bundle of data points is worth keeping an eye on. Maybe change will come – or as many things North Korea, maybe we are in for more of the same.

Photo by Stefan Krasowski