Peeking inside a reclusive, authoritarian state is never easy. If the regime is an Orwellian communist dynasty, the job is harder still. Such is the analysis of what’s going on in Pyongyang now.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took the title of marshal Wednesday, just two days after he removed the chief of the military’s general staff. It could either signify his successful control over the armed forces or reflect his lingering concerns about the military’s loyalty.
Likewise, Kim’s enjoyment of U.S. music and film may herald the North’s change toward reform and openness or insinuate there is still strong resistance toward policy change. What all this means is both the power struggle and policy shift are not complete but progressing, especially depending on responses from its elite, including the military.
Despite, rather than because of, this ambivalent situation, South Korea’s attitude and role become all the more important.
Seoul is understandably cautious, keeping its basic position of further observation. Somewhere in the government, however, we hope a group of officials are closely examining the apparent changes occurring in North Korea and working out responses to various scenarios. It is regrettable in this regard that some officials are only issuing loud warnings against possible provocation.
What’s needed now is to remain attentive about any signs of change in the North, while guarding against all possibilities. What is in the mind of the young North Korean leader seems all but certain if the reports of the North’s official mouthpieces are any guide. They are trying to depict Kim as a leader who puts people’s well-being ahead of all else, citing his emphasis on “no more belt-tightening” and the shift “from military-first to economy-first” policies.
We hope these reports are not propaganda but reflect genuine changes.
Conservative analysts here predict Kim’s reported reform and open-door policy will fail as it would stop at cosmetic changes to solve most urgent economic needs. They may or may not be right. The hawks also say even if Kim’s reform policy is genuine, and can turn North Korea into a more stable and prosperous country, that will intensify inter-Korean rivalry, making chances of unification slimmer. Their conclusion: Don’t dream of reviving the anachronistic Sunshine Policy and let North Korea remain impoverished and collapse for eventual absorption by South Korea.
We don’t think so. If possible, Seoul should help Pyongyang’s reform and make Kim the Deng Xiaoping of North Korea. The final destination for inter-Korean relations is unification. In the process, the South’s goal should not be to weaken and impoverish the North, which will increase unification costs beyond its control, but to let it grow stronger but more friendly to the South by improving political and military environment surrounding the Korean Peninsula.
This is not possible under a leader like President Lee Myung-bak, who while sitting on an economy 40 times larger than North Korea’s, has been staging a war of nerves with his new North Korean counterpart 40 years younger than him.
In December, Koreans hope to see a more confident, and farsighted leader who can take the initiative in inter-Korean relations and positively affect the policies of other regional players.