Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Year's greetings from the new leader

Is it just me, or does it look like seven guys under the podium are pointing firearms with silencers at the Young General?

Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il, rarely spoke in public. Apparently he had a real squeaky voice that belied his ladies' man exterior, much like David Beckham. As the world rang in 2013, Kim Jong-un himself gave a speech on what he hoped would be in store for North Korea in the coming year, and although analysts like Marcus Noland said it was pretty much the same old same old ("this speech could have been any of the last dozen"), it is noteworthy that it was publicly given.

From the Los Angeles Times:
In an unusual televised address for the new year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called to defuse tensions with South Korea and boost the economy of his impoverished nation.

“An important issue in putting an end to the division of the country and achieving its reunification is to remove confrontations between the north and the south,” Kim declared.

Almost anything emerging from the isolated North Korean regime is bound to be parsed by analysts seeking clues to its next steps, but it is striking that Kim gave such a speech at all.

His father, Kim Jong Il, rarely spoke in public and signaled his annual plans through state newspaper editorials; the younger Kim has cultivated a more accessible style since taking power, showing up in public with his young wife and repeatedly addressing the North Korean people on television. Such gestures seem reminiscent of his grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung, who routinely spoke on the new year.

Despite the call to make peace, some experts were skeptical that it signaled any dramatic shift by North Korea. The regime prizes its military might, Kim emphasized later in his speech, delivered just a few weeks after North Korea launched a rocket to loft a satellite into space.
Even if it's rehashed rhetoric, I think this bears watching. This is a guy who may have enough charisma to eventually carry his own weight, once he decides what it is he wants to do. And the fact that he was educated (partly, at least) in the West where he may have been exposed to criticism of his father's and grandfather's regime, along with a positive view of freer markets, more open communications, and looser state controls.

And if that's true, that bodes well for eventual change, once he feels more secure in his situation (which I still maintain is precarious, if he's not a mere figurehead altogether). Always the pessimistic optimist, I can see KJI moving away from the Sŏn'gun ("Military First") policy toward one that makes the military comfortable but not the country's predominant force and preeminent institution.

Maybe. Who the heck knows?

There are some notable things in these speeches, reruns though they are. First, the North Korean people are being told to expect economic stabilization and improvement of "the people's living standards." This third monarch of the New Koryŏ kingdom — and his handlers — must be aware that such rhetoric has to eventually be met with reality, lest support for the regime erode to dangerous levels. Yes, they seem to be planning Chinese-style reforms, but they may be pushing themselves pass the point of no return on that score.

At the same time, I think it's also interesting that reunification is still being hawked as an eventual political goal. If North Korea does successfully reform, that could make it seem more and more like a stand-alone country despite its unification rhetoric (think: Taiwan), which would make a melding of the two Koreas less likely, not more.

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