Style or Substance? Kim Jong-un’s Personality Cult and Reform in North Korea

By | August 10, 2012 | No Comments

As regular readers of SinoNK  are aware, there is a “great debate” ongoing within the community of North Korea watchers and informed analysts–a debate again in bloom, if you will.  Since his rise to power, many have watched closely the governing style of Kim Jong-un as an alternative form of tea leaf reading, looking for any indication that reform is afoot. Though there have been a myriad of observable changes–social, political and otherwise–a bigger question still looms large: is the Young Leader sowing the seeds of reform, or are these changes all style and pomp, executed in order to dupe gullible outsiders for domestic gain? This essay from Sabine van Ameijden (Department of War Studies at King’s College, London), provides readers with an overview of the last seven months of Kim Jong-un’s reign and what they tell us about the prospects for genuine reform. – Steven Denney, Assistant Editor

Read the leaves: boy dictator having fun or indications of systematic change to come? And will the Chinese Ambassador, seated to Kim Jong-un’s right, still be smiling in a year? | Image via The Australian

Style or Substance? Kim Jong-un’s Personality Cult and Reform in North Korea

by Sabine van Ameijden

In the first seven months of Kim Jong-un’s reign,  North Korea watchers have been provided with enough food for thought regarding the new leader’s style. International headlines on North Korea have  been sensational and, for North Korea, watchers reason to believe change may be afoot. Read recent news and find articles about Mickey Mouse on stage, a bride for the Young Leader, and the dismissal of a top military figure. Are these events, combined with possible indications from the Young Leader himself that his policy will put emphasis on the country’s economy, indications that North Korea is actually going down the path of reform?

Extreme Makeover | The death of Kim Jong-il and the accession of Kim Jong-un sparked fresh hope for an improvement in the internal and external politics of the country. Kim Jong-un seems to be adopting a different leadership style, distinguishable from that of his late father Kim Jong-il. He has been surrounded by children, taken rollercoaster rides, made public appearances with his wife and attended a concert which included the performance of people dressed up like Disney characters. All very unlike his father, who was known as a military hardliner with a matching personality. Besides alleged plastic surgery, Kim Kong-un’s behaviour strongly reminds us of his grandfather Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Kim Il-sung created a personality cult of a loveable fatherly leader, while Kim Jong-il was known for his military-first stance and seemed hard to amuse. However, as entertaining as these news items are, the most important question is whether this huggable young leader will attempt to end the North Korean political and economic stagnation through policy reforms.

Reform Fever | It is tempting to jump to conclusions when we see Mickey Mouse on North Korean television, but it now seems that international media have caught “reform fever” , as Geoffrey K. See of the Choson Exchange describes it. Headlines are speculating about Pyongyang going down the reform path, but North Korean statements have yet to state so explicitly. Yes, Kim Jong-un is emphasising the aim of a “strong and prosperous nation” and has told his Chinese counterparts last week that the economy is his priority and that he wants to develop the economy in order for the Korean people to lead happy and civilised lives. Despite efforts to the contrary, words ‘priority’ and ‘development’ cannot be substituted with ‘reform’ and are phrases with no meaning in the absence of concrete proof of economic policy changes.

So, is there any proof of economic policy changes? In 2002, mainly in response to the 1994-98 famine, the North Korean government implemented its first set of bold macroeconomic reforms. By allowing street markets, liberalizing prices and wages, attracting foreign trade through depreciation of its currency and by designating Kaesong and Mt. Kumgang as special economic zones, the government made an attempt to get the economy out of its slump. Although most of these reforms did not prove to be very successful, the special economic zones have received considerable policy making attention and China is trying to give this project a big push by being the largest foreign investor in this experiment. Today, there are economic zones in Rajin-Sonbong, Sinuiju, Kaesong, Mt. Kumgang, Hwanggumpyong and Wihwa Island.

The most recent update on these zones is the release of the laws on Hwamggumphyong and Wihwa and the amended law of Rajin-Sonbong in March this year. Also, it has been reported that in May this year twenty North Korean officials and academics were sent to Tianjin in China to receive training from Chinese experts on the operation, management and attraction of investments to Special Economic Zones. The aim is to apply this knowledge at home in the zones of Hwamggumphyong, Wihwa and Rajin-Sonbong. Moreover, in the North Korean border city Namyang, limited amounts of Chinese businesspeople are now allowed to trade directly with North Koreans at the city’s market.

While these experiments continue to move forward under Kim Jong-un, there still does not seem to be any intention from the top to allow these capitalist enclaves to spread throughout the rest of the country. The North Korean government is rightfully concerned that implementing nation-wide reforms may unleash forces it cannot control. Thus, as International Crisis Group’s recent North Korea report concludes, “there is no sign the regime intends to vary its economic development strategy.”

Continuing the Family Tradition| Kim Jong-un seems to be re-creating a personality cult similar to his grandfather Kim Il-sung and is trying hard to win the “hearts and minds” of the North Korean people while the outside world is very eager to read style change as a sign of reform. However, we are yet to see Kim Jong-un implement different economic and military policies than his father. The socialist government continues to experiment with capitalism, but this should not led us believe that North Korea is actually undergoing reform.

Winning over “hearts and minds” of the people? | Image via National Post

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