I would like to think that Kim Jong Un listened to my advice and hired a Don Draper type to sex up the regime’s image
abroad. Yes, such visions of grandeur. Bringing us back to reality, however, the DPRK has certainly gone to some great lengths to ameliorate its image abroad, to the point that some have described it as an “extreme makeover.” It all perhaps began with Kim Jong Un complaining about the general disrepair of amusement parks (“pathetic” is supposedly the word used). One has to wonder in opaque North Korea whether Kim was referring to simply the amusement park itself, or really criticizing the way that his father ran the country.
Then we have Kim the 3rd walking around accompanied by a mystery woman who we later find out he has married – perhaps even against his father’s wishes. Even if this allegation of filial impiety is not true, Kim Jong Il never trotted out his women in public.
The implication of this rather public announcement is enormous: again, Kim Jong Un is not his father! Then we have a well publicized concert involving trademark infringement of the Mickey Mouse variety and mini-skirts that would have shocked O Jin U if he were still around. We receive word of things like prisoner amnesties. Finally, Ri Yong Ho is sacked. The official cause is illness; the word on the street is power struggle, including fanciful notions of firefights in the inner sanctums of Pyongyang. Ri Yong Ho was supposedly one of the capos in the Kim Jong Il regime. Getting rid of someone like him again is clear signal that a new boss has rolled into town.
At the end of the day, this branding exercise seems a clear play to contrast Kim Jong Un from Kim Jong Il. Perhaps the rumours that Kim Jong Un (and Jang Song Thaek behind him) really want to open the country up. The evidence so far, doesn’t suggest that yet: the border hasn’t been this controlled since the 2008 Olympics and the kwan-li-so system still exists. What isclear is that the regime has, six months after his death, buried Kim Jong Il, set up his statue right beside Kim the 1st, and has all but announced that his era is over.
If Kim Jong Un is really in charge, then there is the obvious impulse to be his “own” man. Having lived in the shadow of both his grandfather and his father for his whole life, it would be natural for him to attempt to eke out his own identity. But the recent changes seem to signal something a little deeper than this: after all, if Kim Jong Il ruled so successfully for the better part of fifteen years, why go through these pronouncements?
Yes, IF, Kim Jong Il had ruled successfully. It’s no hidden secret that many of North Korea’s troubles since 1994 were blamed upon the deceased dictator. Whether it was the “Arduous March” to the botched 2009 currency reform, the DPRK has gone through some pretty tough times. Since North Korea hadn’t experienced such cataclysmic changes during the Kim Il Sung era, much of this blame was squared out upon Kim Jong Il. Perhaps because of this unpopularity, Kim Jong Il had to push out the Party from the picture and install the military as the vanguard of North Korean society.
Despite the demonstration of fealty and the tears that we saw when he died, Kim Jong Il was not as universally loved as his father.
What better way then for Kim Jong Un to carve out an identity than be the person his father was not. Such as speaking in public. And possibly dating a woman his father did not approve of. And including symbols of Americana, to the point we have footage of an American capitalist, Rocky Balboa defeating the socialist Ivan Drago included in public events. The final real message sent was the removal of Ri Yong Ho: removing components of the regime that were closely tied with his father. The branding exercise is a shrewd one: Kim Jong Il’s regime was a failure. Kim Jong Un is not his father. Kim Jong Un’s regime will not be a failure.
If this hypothesis is true, then these recent moves also put the failed rocket launch into new perspective. The regime tells us that the failed launch attempt was one of Kim Jong Il’s last wishes. The rocket launch was probably prepared well before Kim Jong Il’s death anyway. Assuming that North Korea’s rocket scientists work similarly to scientists everywhere, are somewhat competent, and there were ears within Pyongyang who were willing to listen to the truth, these scientists may have communicated the fact that the rocket launch had a very poor probability of success. Yet Kim jong Un went ahead with it anyway. Perhaps the failed rocket launch, announced to the North Korean public, was the ultimate metaphor of the failure of the Kim Jong Il regime – a metaphor which was announced to the whole country.
So are happy times to come? This is where the big caveat comes in. Kim Jong Un may not be his father; but this does not make him yet a reformer. When it comes to the fundamental well-being of North Koreans in general, we are no closer to seeing any improvements in this area. In fact, with the crackdown on the border, the opposite is true. Nothing has fundamentally changed in the DPRK. The international community still feeds a substantial portion of North Korea. The prison camps remain. Would-be refugees get shot trying to escape the country and the three generations punishment policy is back.
So what can we really say about the new boss in Pyongyang? As the Who famously first sung more than forty years ago: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
- North Korea confirms leader Kim Jong-un is married (cbc.ca)
- Why North Korea Needs Don Draper (CanKor.ca)