Glasnost in North Korea?
The ghost of Deng Xiaoping may lurk in Pyongyang, with signs that the world’s youngest head of state is trying to shake up his isolated and impoverished nation. From the sudden dismissal of his top military leader, on grounds of “illness,” to a pop music show featuring American icons Mickey Mouse and Rocky Balboa, to a novel guest- worker program allowing North Koreans to earn hard currency in China, Kim Jong-un is taking a firm grip on power even as he loosens strictures and tells officials to try new things.
With a million-man army and nuclear weapons program, North Korea remains a source of uncertainty and instability, with many questions about whether Kim Jong-un can bring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea peaceably into the 21st century. But the example of Deng Xiaoping’s early efforts to modernize and moderate a deeply ideological China suggests promising parallels.
Some North Korea experts didn’t expect the young heir to make it this far. After Kim Jong-il died in December, former National Security Council Director Victor Cha gave North Korea “several months” before total collapse. After all, young Kim’s shotgun succession had been rushed into action only in 2008 - unlike his father who had been carefully groomed for decades before becoming the Supreme Leader. Pyongyang’s desperate transfer of power to the world’s only communist king was expected to be the straw that would, at long last, break the camel’s back.
Indeed, there are signs in Kim’s speeches and guidance visits that the substance is changing along with the style. In a lengthy talk given to senior party leaders in April, Kim called on officials to try new ideas and be less ideological. “Officials should work with a creative and enterprising attitude… [and] resolutely do away with the outdated ideological viewpoint and backward method and style of work.” It was a distinct echo of Deng’s famous December 1978 speech that launched China’s reforms, in which he called on party members to be “pathbreakers who dare to think, explore new ways and generate new ideas.”