The urge to believe that reform is just around the corner in North Korea - that Kim Jong-un is really Deng Xiaoping in disguise - is irresistible to Western commentators. Bruce Klingner takes a more cynical view:
As surely as the sun rises in the east, someone inevitably perceives subtle new signs of impending North Korean economic reform and a less belligerent foreign policy. Like ancient seers examining animal entrails to predict the future, modern prognosticators interpret cryptic North Korean statements as portending major policy shifts. These clues, in turn, affirm a favored paradigm of a faction of North Korean softliners hiding in the regime bureaucracy, furtively sending signals to the outside world for help, much like World War II French Resistance fighters.
Benevolent assessments of North Korean intentions are inevitably followed by policy recommendations that, in order to strengthen the nascent reform movement, the United States must offer concessions. These may be providing new unconditional economic and diplomatic benefits or, conversely, removing existing sanctions imposed on Pyongyang for violating international law or UN Security Council resolutions.
This is nothing new. There has been a long history of grasping at North Korean straws in the wind. After the death of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in 1994, the U.S. State Department predicted that Kim Jong Il was actually a closet reformer and North Korea was on the cusp of implementing bold economic reform. Well, we’re still waiting....
[T]he death of Kim Jong Il and ascendency of the Swiss-educated Kim Jong Eun has resurrected the ‘hope springs eternal’ school of thought. Visions of Kim fils watching Disney characters cavorting on stage, listening to Frank Sinatra, and watching excerpts from Rocky IV, all while accompanied by his stylish wife, triggered suggestions of a new dawn in Pyongyang.
In recent weeks, Pyongyang has dusted off its charm offensive tactic by exploring diplomatic initiatives with Beijing, Washington, and Tokyo. One news organization reported “North Korea has virtually abandoned the planned economy.” A South Korean academic predicted that “we can expect the reforms and openness to pick up speed and scale once Pyongyang’s relations improve with Seoul and Washington.”
Is the new North Korean leader willing to significantly alter his country’s policies, including implementing widespread economic reform? Perhaps. Anything is possible and someday pigs may indeed fly.
The new North Korea is in reality now even more of a prison than it was under the Dear Leader.
More in the same vein from Victor Cha at Foreign Policy:
For those searching for signs of reform in North Korea, Kim Jong Un has been a godsend. Women on North Korean state TV wore high heels and miniskirts while he sat in the audience. Disney characters, the cultural export of a country North Korea has long demonized, danced onstage. The not-yet-30-year-old Kim, since taking over from father in December 2011, frolicked with school children and was photographed on a rollercoaster with a British diplomat, signaling a level of international openness never seen under the stern Kim Jong Il. He found a pretty wife, Ri Sol Ju, whom the New York Times equated with Britain's Kate Middleton. In a sign of changing times, the new first lady has even been photographed with her husband -- significant because Kim Jong Il was never seen with his spouse -- sporting a Christian Dior purse worth more than the annual wage of a North Korean worker.
Such inane details, combined with the young Kim's years of Swiss schooling where he wolfed down pizza and idolized NBA stars, have caused optimists to declare once again that North Korea is ready to open up to the outside world. This spring, I participated in unofficial meetings in New York where North Korean officials met with executives from Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken to discuss opening branches in North Korea.
Rumors of a new economic policy being hatched in Pyongyang only fuel speculation that junior Kim is serious about change. Similar predictions were made in 1994 when Kim Jong Il, then a sprightly 52, took over after his 82-year-old father Kim Il Sung died. Needless to say, the reforms never happened. But apparently, believers in the irresistibility of Disney, Dior, and Coke have short memories and tall hopes of a China-type economic modernization coming to North Korea.
Let me be blunt: The North Korean regime will not change because Little Kim studied in Switzerland, likes Mickey Mouse, and has a hot wife. If anything, another crisis could be looming: The death of Kim Jong Il and the politics of an unstable leadership transition, a new "get-tough" attitude in Seoul, and U.S. and South Korean electoral cycles constitute a unique confluence of escalation that has not been seen on the peninsula since the 1990s. This could spell another nuclear crisis with North Korea, or even worse, military hostilities that could threaten the peace and prosperity of the region.