If North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, wanted to end the brutal and destructive tyranny that his father and grandfather imposed on the country, he would need support from abroad. The military and Communist Party elites who control and benefit from that system would have to be brought round or bought off, and that would require lots of foreign aid and a global amnesty for their crimes. So how would he get the foreigners to help?
Well, he’d have to show them that he was willing to reform—but he couldn’t be too obvious about it at first, or those elites would just get rid of him. He’d drop a hint here, make a gesture there, and hope that the foreigners would trust him and help him to change the country, rather like the Burmese generals did when they began to dismantle their own half-century-old dictatorship two years ago.
Unfortunately, Kim Jong-un would drop the same hints and make the same gestures if his only wish was to sucker the outside world into propping up the bankrupt system in North Korea with more big shipments of free food and fuel. There’s no way to read his mind, so how should the foreigners respond?
This is not a theoretical question, for he is sending out those signals. Never mind the cosmetic stuff like being seen in public with a new wife who dresses in fashionable western clothes. In his televised New Year’s message to the Korean people, he spoke of the need to “remove confrontation between the North and the South” and called for dramatic improvements in the national economy.
It’s the first time the regime has ever celebrated the western new year (including fireworks in Pyongyang). It’s been 19 years since the country’s leader last spoke to the people directly. He may be trying to tell them and the rest of the world that he is starting down the road of reform, or he may be bluffing. What to do?
Unfortunately, since he’s not making any political or economic reforms at home at the moment—that’s what he might do if he had foreign help—we can’t conclude anything about his intentions from his domestic policies. And his foreign policy is hardly encouraging either.
North Korea doesn’t have much by way of a foreign policy. The only consistent thread is its obsession with military power (it has one of the world’s biggest armies, though it has about the population of Australia), and latterly with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
Both of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons tests, in 2006 and 2012, were conducted when Kim Jong-il was still alive and in power, but Kim Jong-un has not repudiated them. Moreover, he has continued to test ballistic missiles, including the launch last month of a rocket that his regime says could hit the United States. (It was ostensibly used to launch a satellite, which it did, but the technology for satellite launchers and ICBMs is almost identical.)
On the other hand, here is a man whose only claim to power is heredity, in a country that does not have a formally recognized monarchy. To consolidate his power, he must persuade the military and Party elites that he is a reliable successor who will perpetuate the system that keeps them fat and happy, so his current aggressive posture in foreign policy is really no guide to his real intentions either.
In fact, at this point there is really no way of telling what he means to do. The rest of the world, and in particular the United States and North Korea’s neighbours—South Korea, China, and Japan—are going to have to make their decisions blind. What can they do that would help Kim Jong-un to bring the country out of its cave and start loosening the domestic tyranny, without actually making matters worse if he is not a secret reformer?
The safest course would be to encourage dialogue between North and South Korea (which has just elected a new president, Park Geun-hye, who has declared her presidency ready to initiate unconditional talks with the North). It would also be sensible to ease back on the embargoes and other restrictions on North Korean imports for a while, since they are obviously achieving nothing in terms of stopping its weapons projects anyway.
And what if Kim Jong-un dares not or simply does not want to respond to these gestures with more promising moves himself? Then you just give up and go back to the policy of containment that has had so little success over the years. North Korea is really a very small threat (except to its own people, of course), and it’s safe to take a little risk in the hope that the new ruler will respond.
It’s the country’s only hope. There is not going to be a North Korean spring in the Arab style.