Seoul: Keeping track of women’s hemlines is, admittedly, an unusual way to judge the mind-set of a country’s leader.
But that is just what veteran North Korea watchers have resorted to in trying to peer into one of the world’s most isolated countries and divine what its new young leader, Kim Jong-Un, is thinking. For weeks now, those analysts have puzzled over photos of women sporting miniskirts and heels in downtown Pyongyang, a stunning change from the years when Western wear was mostly shunned in favour of billowy traditional dresses or drab Mao-style work uniforms. Then, Kim himself was shown on state TV giving a thumbs up to a girl band featuring leggy string players performing for him and his generals, and the debate over deeper meaning began in earnest.
In a political system that tightly choreographs its messages, could short skirts—along with the appearance of Mickey Mouse and a film clip of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa at the same concert—indicate some rethinking of the North’s attitudes toward the West? Or was the fashion statement decidedly less weighty: perhaps another short-lived attempt to divert the attention of an unhappy populace?
Cultural shift: An April photo of a North Korean subway station worker waiting for commuters at an underground station in Pyongyang. Photo: Ng Han Guan/AP
Koh Yu-Hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul, counts himself in the hopeful camp. He calls recent changes in the North “a glasnost”, a shift he said was supported by a new generation of Communist Party members, mostly the old elite’s children who, like Kim, have travelled abroad and may envision Chinese-style economic reforms.
On the other side are analysts like Lee Sung-Yoon, a North Korea specialist at the Fletcher School of Tufts University in Boston, who says any belief in real change based on Kim’s education in Switzerland as a teenager is wishful thinking.
“If exposure to European cosmopolitanism were a cure for totalitarianism, one wonders how Pol Pot, who spent four years in Paris in his mid-20s, missed out on the transformative experience,” he said, referring to the murderous former dictator of Cambodia.
North Korea analysts can hardly be blamed for trying to cobble together whatever scraps of information they can find. The world knows precious little about Kim, including exactly how old he is (the best guess is in his 20s) and whether he is married (news reports helpfully point out that a mystery woman making increasingly frequent appearances with him might be his sister, wife or girlfriend). But figuring out what he might be thinking is critical to determining how much of a threat he, and the nuclear programme he inherited, poses to his neighbours, and North Korea’s enemies in the West.
So far, the puzzle pieces leave little doubt that Kim is trying to forge a very different leadership style than his father, Kim Jong-Il, whose countenance was dour enough to merit ribbing by the creators of South Park. The son, by comparison, appears to be more approachable (photos show him hooking arms with factory workers and soldiers); less threatened by foreign cultures and apparently more willing to admit failure (he told the nation of a botched rocket launch in April).
But there is also ample evidence that Kim, who took over late last year after his father’s death, does not plan to veer far from his father’s and grandfather’s governing policies on most issues, including maintaining a strong military and nuclear arms programme and issuing frequent, florid threats against South Korea and the US. Kim launched the rocket in April despite the likelihood that it would kill a new food aid agreement with the US, which it did, and annoy the North’s last true ally, China, which had urged restraint.
It became clear early on that Kim aimed to style himself after his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, the more popular founder of the country, rather than his father. The youngest Kim claps his hands the same way his grandfather did and sports a similar hairdo with high-trimmed sideburns. In recent weeks, he hosted a huge children’s day celebration, ensuring he would be seen surrounded by happy and well-fed youngsters, just as his grandfather often was depicted in state propaganda. But over time, Kim Jong-un has also begun to carve out his own leadership style, striving to come across as youthful and more pragmatic.
“He is much more willing to acknowledge challenges, problems and even failures,” said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, who saw Kim’s strategy as aimed at “turning his potential weakness—youth and inexperience—into a political strength: dynamism and energy”.
He has delivered at least two public speeches, something his reclusive father never did. He was even shown visiting restaurants that sell pizza, hamburgers and French fries—Western foods that began appearing in Pyongyang several years ago but were not fully endorsed by his father. Then came this month’s concert, clips of which were later shown on state TV. The appearance of Mickey Mouse, a stand-in for Western culture, had a special resonance for those who have followed the Kim family dynasty. In 2001, Kim Jong-Il’s eldest son, Jong-Nam, was caught trying to enter Japan with a fake visa, reportedly to visit Tokyo Disneyland. Analysts say Kim Jong-Il was so upset that he effectively counted Jong-nam out as his successor.
©2012/The New York Times
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