Change in North Korea?

There have been quite a lot of things happening in North Korea lately. Things that have never happened before. Many experts on North Korean issues are saying that these events are signs of change within North Korea that may lead to reform. Others argue that these changes will not be enough to open up North Korea. Of course, I can’t offer any answers to these debates and it is not OneKorea’s purpose to do so. But instead, I’d like to take a look at some of these changes so that you might be able to form an opinion of your own.

A Relatable Leader

Since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, to be the leader of the world’s most isolated nation in the world, he’s been doing things a bit differently from the way his father liked things done. For one, he introduced his wife to the world. With Kim Jong Il, the leader’s wives were never officially revealed to the world. We may have had some information about them but you would never see them strutting around the country on the arm of their husband. The previous Kim was well known for his secrecy when it came to his personal life. However, this has not been the same for Kim Jong Un so far. We have been seeing Kim Jong Un and his wife in the news quite often lately as they visit various sites together hand in hand such as amusement parks and preschools.

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Women in the Markets of North Korea

It is a challenge to report on North Korea without talking sometimes about the hardships in the country. On this blog, we generally try to focus on fostering greater understanding of this place so different from our own, and to do that we often play up the “good news” or choose lighter fare to cover, since so many sources focus instead on the negative. We try to provide a picture of hope.

But, to deserve the respect of our readers, sometimes we have to cover difficult issues. We’ll touch on some such issues in this post.

A new report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics examines the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman in North Korea. It used a detailed survey of refugees living in South Korea to build a picture of life inside North Korea over the past ten or twenty years.

A woman sells snacks at a roadside stand on April 21, 2012. Photo credit David Guttenfelder / AP Photo.

One of the most prominent features of gender inequity in North Korea is the role of women in private markets. Women tended disproportionately to be shed from government or party jobs, which along with the military are deeply biased toward men; women also tend generally to be less likely to hold a job in general. Continue reading

In the News – That Mystery Woman in North Korea? Turns Out She’s the First Lady

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In the News – That Mystery Woman in North Korea? Turns Out She’s the First Lady

SEOUL, South Korea — She was first spotted at a gala concert for the country’s who’s who, dressed in a trim black suit in the Chanel tradition. Then she popped up at a kindergarten, trailing photographers who caught images of her smiling gently at children playing on a slide. Her latest appearance, at the inauguration of an amusement park, was yet another star turn: the cameras zooming in on the slim woman with the easy smile and fashionable polka-dot jacket.

Ri Sol-ju’s sudden appearance in the spotlight on Wednesday, in a photo from the amusement park visit, had all the trappings of a Kate Middleton moment.

Except this is North Korea, and Ms. Ri’s tantalizing public appearances were less a debut than a typically opaque North Korean-style acknowledgment that the mysterious 20-something leader of the country had taken a wife. State media made that clear with little fanfare, almost as an afterthought, in an announcement that the new amusement park had opened in Pyongyang.

“While a welcoming song was resonating,” state television intoned, “Marshal Kim Jong-un appeared at the ceremony site, with his wife, Comrade Ri Sol-ju.”

The fact that Ms. Ri was introduced publicly at all was considered significant, the latest sign for North Korea analysts that Mr. Kim was breaking from the leadership style of his father, a dour man who was known for marrying beautiful performers but who never introduced them to the public.

“Secrecy and shadows characterized the 17-year rule ofKim Jong-il,” said John Park, a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. “In contrast, Kim Jong-un has already shown a pattern of being more open and engaging. He appears to enjoy public events and interacting with children and the common soldier. Many of these recent appearances look like a re-enactment of his grandfather’s mingling with the people in better times.”

The introduction of Ms. Ri followed weeks of surprises from Mr. Kim. First he was shown at the concert, beaming during a performance by Mickey Mouse, formerly considered a symbol of the corrupt West. Then he fired a hard-line top general and was reported to have taken away important financial perks from the military, moves that analysts saw as signs that he was trying to tame the powerful army — and even possibly make economic reforms that could allow the country to open up a bit to the world.

The announcement of his marriage, analysts said, seemed to be a continuation of what is either a policy change, or a propaganda offensive, or both.

“It would put some of his new policies into the context of a North Korean version of Camelot,” Mr. Park said. “A dynamic and charismatic first lady could be very helpful in creating this image of Camelot. It’s definitely an uphill battle, but this image could generate some initial momentum.”

“Uphill,” in this case, is an enormous understatement. North Korea remains one of the world’s most tightly controlled police states, with active gulags where defectors say torture and death are commonplace and one where failed economic policies helped lead to mass starvation in the 1990s and widespread food shortages that continue today.

For Mr. Kim, analysts say, a change in tone could speak to a young generation that is slowly learning about the world — and its own country’s failings — through a proliferation of smuggled cellphones and South Korean television shows. Ms. Ri’s fashion sense, they say, appears to be part of the building of a youthful new image; for years North Korean women were pictured only in traditional billowing dresses or Mao-style work clothes.

It is difficult to judge how important Ms. Ri’s ascension will prove to be in the realm of policy.

Mr. Kim has reportedly made a few significant changes since coming to power after the death of his father in December. They include publicly acknowledging some failures that his father and grandfather would almost certainly have hidden. He has been much more blunt about the food shortages, vowing to do more to ensure his people will not go hungry, and he admitted that an important rocket launching was a bust. He is even reported to be backing a program to allow hundreds of North Koreans to work in China to bring in much needed foreign currency, a risky plan that could expose many more of his countrymen to the world after decades of a virtual information blackout.

But defectors and others with contacts inside North Korea say his government has also tightened control on its border with China to keep disaffected North Koreans in, and the increasing trickle of foreign news out. And he shows no signs of backing off the nuclear arms program that has made his country a pariah, nor of abandoning “socialist principles in economic matters.”

It is also a matter of dispute how important the wives and female companions of North Korean leaders are. Confidential cables released by WikiLeaks suggested that at least one source for American government analysts thought the women played an important role. (One cable by the consulate in Shanghai quotes that source as saying that a woman close to Kim Jong-il was “extremely powerful” and the person deciding who had access to him.) Others, however, have suggested that Kim Jong-il’s wives’ most important role was to try to ensure their own progeny ascended to run the nation.

Kim Jong-un’s mother, the winner in the dynastic skirmishing, died years before he was named successor. But according to many analysts in South Korea — whose job is to parse what few details there are on the North — all indications were that she had already convinced her husband that Jong-un would be the strongest leader among his sons.

The understated introduction of Ms. Ri to her people ended weeks of fevered speculation outside the country over who the “mystery woman” suddenly appearing at Mr. Kim’s side was.

Even now, though, much remains unknown. She may be the founder of the girl band, including string players in miniskirts, that performed at the now-famous state concert in which Ms. Ri was seated to Mr. Kim’s right. She appears not, however, to be the old flame that some media reports say Mr. Kim was forced to abandon on his father’s orders.

But almost everything else remains unknown; the world knows more about Kate Middleton’s popular sister, Pippa, than about Ms. Ri, whose age is just one of the remaining mysteries. It is not even clear when Mr. Kim and Ms. Ri married, and analysts said they might already have a child.

North Korea’s first family was not always hidden from view. The veil of privacy descended after Kim Jong-il was designated as his father’s successor in the mid-1970s. Before that, state news media carried reports when Kim Il-sung and the woman believed to be his second wife, Kim Song-ae, met foreign leaders.

After it became clear that Kim Jong-il would succeed his father, that woman dropped out of the news, which instead began building a personality cult around his own mother, who had died when he was 7.

Kim Jong-il himself had at least three known wives, but none was ever identified as the first lady. Like his father before him, he also was thought to surround himself with other beautiful young women. For the current leader, all indications so far are that Ms. Ri has no rivals.

Original Article 

In the News – ‘Mystery woman’ stirs talk of changing times in North Korea

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In the News – ‘Mystery woman’ stirs talk of changing times in North Korea

KRT via Reuters TV North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a pre-school as an unidentified woman stands near him in Pyongyang in this undated image aired that aired on state TV on Sunday.

By Eric Baculinao, NBC News Beijing Bureau Chief

BEIJING – It was her third public appearance by the side of North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong Un. This time the “mystery woman” was wearing a striking yellow polka-dot dress, with a chic Chanel-style white tweed jacket and matching ivory toe-open high heels, in state television footage of a recent visit by Kim to a preschool in Pyongyang.

Her appearance in public again – she is thought to be the same woman who recently appeared with Kim at a Disney-inspired concert – was a rare spectacle, stirring up speculation that changes are coming to the isolated nation.

The “mystery woman,” coupled with the surprise announcement by the country’s official news media on Monday that North Korea’s veteran army chief was relieved of all his posts, apparently due to illness, also stoked suspicion. It was the first major purge under the seven-month-old regime of Kim Jong Un, who inherited leadership of the authoritarian regime after his father died last December.

The intriguing combination of fashion display and military purge is fueling debate among North Korea watchers in Beijing and Seoul on whether or not the moves signal a new policy direction from the Pyongyang regime. Some argue the 29-year-old new leader may be trying to remove old guards from his regime who could stand in the way of a reform program to revitalize the impoverished country.

A wife, a sister?
But back to the mystery woman: who is she? 

There has been no official confirmation of the identity of the glamorous woman who appeared at Kim’s side at three recent public events. She first attracted global curiosity when she was shown watching a July 7 cultural performance with Kim that featured Minnie Mouse and other Disney characters, the theme song from “Rocky 4”and groups of female singers dressed in mini-skirts, high-heeled shoes and off-the-shoulder tops.

KCNA via AP In this photo released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and distributed in Tokyo by the Korea News Service on July 9, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center right, and a woman clap with others as they watch a performance by North Korea’s new Moranbong band in Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, July 6, 2012.

Other top officials who watched the show included Kim’s uncle Jan Song-Taek, widely seen as the power behind the throne. The concert itself, shown to the public by North Korean TV, tended to play up Kim’s reputation as avid fan of Western pop culture. He was reportedly fond of American basketball when he was studying in Switzerland during the 1990s, wore Nike sneakers and drove Harley Davidson motorcycles.

Some South Korean observers said that the woman could be Kim’s sister, Kim Yeo-Jong. But his sister later appeared on state TV during a mourning event for Kim Jong Il, their father, and she looked unmistakably slimmer and different from the “mystery woman.”

Others pointed to a popular singer Hyon Song Wol, with hits like “I Love Pyongyang” and “Excellent Horse-like Lady.”

But more recent reports from Seoul say that she is Kim’s wife.  She isreported to be a 27-year-old graduate from Kim Il-Sung University. So far, however, there hasn’t been any official confirmation from North Korea on the woman’s identity.

The buzz about the glamorous “mystery woman” comes amid increasing reports, noted in South Korea and China’s blogosphere, of more entertainment and choices in the daily lives of the North Koreans.

Visitors to the isolated country report more women wearing fashionable outfits, young men using hair gels in the style of South Korean actors and private markets in Pyongyang operating more flexible hours.

Kim has lifted the ban on women wearing trousers in public which has proved extremely popular. North Korean TV has also shown images of Kim visiting amusement parks and fast food restaurants that sell pizza, hamburgers and French fries, Western delights once banned in the country.

High-heel shoes rank second among the 10 most popular consumer items for North Korean women, according to an analysis by the Samsung Economic Research Institute.

Close eye from China
North Korea watchers in China are keeping a close eye on developments for any signs of real change in the “Hermit Kingdom.”

The idea of “opening up” the long reclusive country should be encouraged, according to a commentary in China’s state-run Global Times newspaper.

“Northeast Asia’s geopolitical development should encourage North Korea’s opening up instead of repeatedly creating tensions that will only intensify Pyongyang’s caution and vigilance,” argued Global Times commentator Shen Renping.

In one sign of economic change, there have been reports that 20,000 workers from North Korea will be sent to China to work in manufacturing sectors.According to Chinese analysts, Kim is set to declare a comprehensive economic reform program “in August or September.”

Referring to the recent ouster of Kim’s former mentor and North Korean army chief Ri Yong Ho, a Chinese North Korea expert told AP Television that Kim was signaling “North Korea is going to slowly change the policy of putting the military first” and to experiment with “economic reform.”

The Chinese scholar Wang Junsheng called on the international community to “wait for the next steps” and to give Kim “time and a comfortable environment.”

However, another leading Chinese foreign policy scholar urged caution in drawing any conclusions about a North Korean reform program.

“I think North Korea has changed a lot already since Kim Jong Il died. But in terms of policy and diplomacy, I see little indication of change,” Professor Shi Yinhong, who teaches international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, told NBC News.

Referring to North Korea’s nuclear and security policies, Shi Yinhong cautioned that “it is too early tell” whether North Korea will change.

“I see no substantial indication of opening up…Bringing some women along is very normal and doesn’t have much critical meaning,” he added.

 

Original Article