From Mickey Mouse and a mysterious female companion, to the whiff of economic reform and the surprising ouster of his military mentor, evidence is mounting that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will lead very differently than his secretive father.
Seven months after inheriting the country from Kim Jong Il, the 20-something leader suddenly began appearing in public with a beautiful young woman. Dressed in a chic suit with a modern cut, her hair stylishly cropped, she carried herself with the poise of a first lady as she sat by his side for an unforgettable performance—Mickey Mouse grooving with women in little black dresses jamming on electric violins.
A few days later, video showed her flirting with Kim Jong Un during a visit to a kindergarten. She quickly became the subject of fervent speculation—Is she his wife? Girlfriend? A friend?
But the scent of change extends well beyond Mickey and miniskirts. A change of the guard in North Korea’s powerful military is taking place, as Kim retires his father’s confidantes and elevates a younger generation of generals. He promoted a group of younger economists to key party positions, part of a stated push to resuscitate an economy that has lagged far behind the rest of Asia.
Bureaucrats have been dispatched to draw new foreign investment. A rare admission of failure came when Pyongyang’s vaunted rocket failed to make it into orbit. Kim Jong Un has delivered a pair of public speeches when his father avoided such displays.
To the outside world, these changes may seem trivial. In North Korea, they represent a seismic shift. For decades in this country built on a philosophy of “juche,” or self-reliance, shutting out the West was a state policy. So was shielding the private lives of its leaders from the masses.
On the streets of the capital city, change is afoot. Pop songs jangle from the now-ubiquitous cellphones carried by Pyongyang’s well-to-do. A wave of construction has transformed the skyline. Singapore it is not, but the city has a handful of sleek new edifices looming over its tree-lined river banks.
Whether these cosmetic things translate into real policy change remains to be seen.
Long at odds with the US and its allies over a nuclear program that Pyongyang refuses to abandon, North Korea has struggled to feed its population. A recent UN report said two-thirds of its 24 million people face chronic food shortages, and access to clean water, regular electricity and medicine is still remote for most of those living in the underdeveloped countryside. A US-based rights group also estimates tens of thousands of prisoners remain held in Soviet-style penal camps.
Still, there’s a glimmer of hope in the baby steps that North Korea is taking, said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University in South Korea, who has visited Pyongyang several times in recent years.
“That’s the subtle kind of way Deng Xiaoping signaled a new direction in the 1970s in China,” he said. “It doesn’t start with someone saying, ‘OK, we’re going to abandon communism.’ It starts in smaller ways like this.”
But it’s too soon to talk about economic and political “reform,” said Daniel Pinkston, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. North Korea needs to begin making real, lasting structural changes before that word can be used to describe the movement.
However, by acknowledging that problems exist and encouraging government officials to find solutions, there are hints that Kim is headed in that direction, Delury said. “It’s not a policy change, but it’s a governance change in the attitude, and that could be the start of something significant.”
Is it Kim himself who is behind the changes, or the cadre of advisers that surround him—some of whom were in the inner circle of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder? Like most things in North Korea, it is very likely a carefully choreographed campaign.
In its own, sometimes cryptic way, Pyongyang is trying to portray its 20-something chief as a 21st century leader in touch with his people’s modern-day lives.
That is a marked contrast from his father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled for 17 years under a veil of secrecy. Discussing the first family was strictly taboo. The leader’s consorts, including Kim Jong Un’s mother, were kept from the public eye.
His children, said to include three sons and a daughter, were never mentioned in state media dispatches. And anything that wasn’t sanctioned with an official blessing by the government’s propaganda organs was widely known to be dangerous to discuss. Even Kim Jong Un was virtually unknown, and seldom discussed, before his formal introduction to the world in the autumn of 2010.
As North Koreans cautiously navigate the changes taking place and gauge how safe it is to veer off long-proscribed paths, a sense of fear still pervades every interaction. And some things remain secret, including the identity of mystery woman and her relationship to Kim Jong Un.
But her simple presence beside Kim in public has made it OK to gossip about his personal life. North Koreans may not know who she is either, but they’re no longer shy about showing their interest. They were quick to gather around TVs in recent weeks for their first glimpses of North Korea’s version of Britain’s William and Kate.
“We’re dying to know, too,” said one North Korean, with a shrug and a smile, when asked whether Kim was married.
If the father was remote and surrounded by soldiers, the son is trying to position himself as a man of the people—more like his grandfather. Kim Il Sung built homes, parks and schools and was often shown alongside his wife, Kim Jong Suk, and with children in his arms.
Kim Jong Un is a child of the 1980s. He grew up—possibly in Switzerland—with action films and pop music, video games and junk food.
Could “Rocky,” the theme song of which was featured in the Mickey Mouse concert, have been a childhood favorite? Or could it have been another of the songs on the program that night: Frank Sinatra’s “My Way?” A song from a different generation, for sure, but perhaps a metaphor for this new mode of leadership.