North Korea Experts Can See a Lot in a Hemline

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SEOUL, South Korea -- Keeping track of women's hemlines is, admittedly, an unusual way to judge the mind-set 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, Mr. Kim himself was shown on state TV giving a thumbs up to a girl band featuring leggy string players 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Kim, 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. Mr. Kim launched the rocket in April despite the likelihood that it would kill a new food aid agreement with the United States, which it did, and annoy the North's last true ally, China, which had urged restraint.

It became clear early on that Mr. Kim aimed to style himself after his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the more popular founder of the country, rather than his father. The youngest Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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, has been widely reported in China, and 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 Mr. 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.

Still, for those ready to declare a true shift under Mr. Kim, it may be helpful to look back to another period of change that, as it turns out, also had a fashion angle.

When the North's economy was imploding in the 1990s, Kim Jong-il turned a blind eye to the decision by many women to break the North's rules on clothing and behavior, wearing pants and biking to trading bazaars, creating an "eyesore."

But in 2009, in an apparent fit of pique at the growing power of the merchants, Mr. Kim temporarily shut the black markets and the authorities resumed their crackdown on women wearing pants and riding bicycles. Then pants and markets made a comeback in 2010.

Such wild pendulum swings are likely to continue despite the change in leadership. "Under Kim Jong-un," said Dong Yong-seung, a North Korea expert at the Samsung Economic Research Institute here, "we will see a continual clash and compromise between emerging market forces and the regime's attempt to turn back the clock."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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