In the News – Kim Jong Un stamps his own style on his fantasy kingdom
THESE are unsettling times for watchers of North Korea. Scholars who used to pore over rambling documents on the philosophy of self-reliance are suddenly confronted with strange new questions. Who is the svelte young woman seen accompanying North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un? Why were American symbols such as Mickey Mouse, Rocky Balboa and Frank Sinatra featured at a concert that the two attended in Pyongyang this month? And who are the pop stars with miniskirts and electric violins who elicited an elated thumbs-up from the bouncy mini-Kim?
You could almost sense the relief this week when the boffins could get back to Kremlinology and ponder an unexpected overhaul at the top of North Korea’s armed forces. As ever with the Hermit Kingdom, the meaning was mostly guesswork. But the conclusion for the time being is that, superficially at least, Mr Kim is putting a very different stamp on the oppressive regime from that of his secretive and mirthless late father, Kim Jong Il.
The move, though it caused soldiers to dance through the streets of Pyongyang (see photo), suggested to some that Mr Kim may be toning down the “military first” policy that has guided North Korea for years. With the help of his uncle, Jang Song Taek, he may be promoting the primacy of the Korean Workers’ Party instead. So far, the transition seems to have been orderly—previous purges under his father had involved car crashes—but there is enough uncertainty in a nuclear-armed state to leave plenty of concern.
Far clearer is the emerging personal style of the young Mr Kim. Jocular in public, though no great orator, he seems to have no qualms about letting North Koreans gossip about the mystery woman at his side. He is playing on his youth, declaring in a big speech to the party’s gilded children (millions of less favoured youngsters are kept under heel from birth) that they are “treasures more precious than 100m tonnes of gold and silver”. His father barely uttered a sentence in public, let alone released details of his private life.
For now, though, it is purely cosmetic. There are no signs that conditions are improving for North Korea’s repressed citizens. State media still indulges in horrific invective against the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, suggesting that, despite its discovery of American schmaltz, the regime’s attitude remains dangerously paranoid. John Delury, of Yonsei University in Seoul, believes Mr Kim may “shift the priority a bit from security to prosperity”, noting that rapidly increasing trade with China and the illicit import of foreign films are familiarising North Koreans with Western concepts such as higher hemlines. Alternatively, though, they may just be sugar-coated ways of distracting a nation starved of everything else.