Mickey Mouse, miniskirts hint at change in North Korea
Observers agree that the young leader of the secretive nation is showing signs of carving out a new, more pragmatic leadership style than his dour father displayed. But opinions differ over what will result.
The New York Times
N. Korean leader's key aide removed as military chiefSEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong Un's top military official — a key mentor to North Korea's new young leader — has been removed from all posts because of illness, state media said Monday.
The decision to relieve Ri Yong Ho of his duties was made at a Workers' Party meeting Sunday, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency. He has been at Kim Jong Un's side since the young man emerged as father Kim Jong Il's successor in 2010, often standing between father and son at major events. That role appeared to deepen after Kim Jong Il's death in December, helping Kim to solidify support among the military.
Kim Jong Il's "military first" policy made the army North Korea's most powerful institution. Ri wielded power from his position at the intersection of three crucial institutions: the Korean People's Army, the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers' Party and the Standing Committee of the party's influential Political Bureau.
The Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea —
Keeping track of women's hemlines is, admittedly, an unusual way to judge the mindset 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 favor of billowy traditional dresses or drab Mao-style work uniforms.
Then, Kim himself was shown on state TV giving a thumbs up to a slightly risque girl band 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?
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 traveled 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 program he inherited, poses to his neighbors, 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 Jong Un, 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 program and issuing frequent, florid threats against South Korea and the United States.
Kim launched the rocket in April despite the likelihood it would kill a new food-aid agreement with the United States, which it did, and annoy the North's last true ally, China.
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.
At the concert, Kim Jong Un was essentially bringing Disneyland home, showing to his people that he was ready to embrace elements of foreign culture, even from the "sworn enemy" of the United States, if they suited his country's needs, analysts said.
The changes are also meant to blunt the impact of more information and entertainment trickling into the North — from defectors who smuggle cellphones to their loved ones and from traders allowed to cross back and forth into China to get much-needed goods to sell, as well as digital copies of South Korean movies and television shows.
Pragmatism may also be driving what could be Kim's most substantive change yet — a reported agreement to send thousands of skilled workers to China. The program, which has not been confirmed by either government, is a bold and potentially risky shift.
With larger numbers going abroad, analysts said, North Korea will have less of a chance to monitor the workers as closely, but Kim appears willing to take the chance to shore up badly depleted foreign currency reserves with the fees it will charge workers chosen for the jobs.