An expert's point of view on a current event.

Kim Jong Un Is No Reformer

North Korea's new leader studied in Switzerland and has a young, attractive wife. That doesn't mean he's into the whole hope and change thing.


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.

The Obama administration stopped trying to engage Pyongyang after its April 2012 missile launch, which North Korea announced just 16 days after a food-for-nuclear-and-missile-freeze deal with the United States. Stung by the launch, the Obama administration immediately called off the deal and gave up on its last chance to get IAEA inspectors into North Korea’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. The launch, which North Korea claimed was for a weather satellite but tested ballistic missile technology banned by the U.N. Security Council, exploded an embarrassing 81 seconds after liftoff.

The spectacular failure of Kim’s first major public act almost ensures that another provocation is in the offing. He lacks the revolutionary credentials his grandfather earned as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese. Unlike his father, he does not have a decade of training and preparation for the job. Without serving a day of military service, in September 2010 the junior Kim was made a four-star general and foisted to the top of the power structure at the age of 26 or 27. Even for North Koreans, who expect their leaders to start young so that they can rule for decades, this is a stretch. So Kim must prove himself — be it through another missile launch, a nuclear test, or a military provocation against Seoul.

But South Koreans are fed up. Since North Korea torpedoed a South Korean navy ship in March 2010 and shelled an island a few months later in attacks that killed sailors and civilians, the government and public no longer preach patience and stability so as not to rattle the South Korean stock market. South Korean military leaders have re-written their military rules of engagement. They are now prepared to retaliate for the next military act, possibly even going after command structures in North Korea, which could ignite a full-scale war on the peninsula.

The South Korean conservative political contender for the presidential election in December, moreover, is in no mood to look weak on North Korea.  Even if the long-shot liberal candidates who preach engagement with the North were to win, Pyongyang has a history of provoking a newly elected leader in the South to show who is the alpha dog on the peninsula, in which case, public pressure for a strong response would be difficult to ignore.

Based on my research of U.S.-North Korea negotiations since 1984, within an average of five months after a provocation Washington is usually back at the bargaining table, often because it wants to de-escalate a crisis. The Obama administration, facing a tough election, is not interested in offering exit ramps to North Korea, for fearing of being denounced as weak by Republicans.

Optimists often cite China as the answer to avoiding another crisis.  The mid-August meetings between the Chinese and Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, may be a prelude to more economic deals and even a visit by the new leader to Beijing. But China cannot restrain Pyongyang from belligerence; and it cannot reform North Korea’s family-run regime, no matter how many bureaucrats it offers to train. It can only bribe them to return temporarily to a negotiating table that is now empty of other willing partners.

The only thing missing right now is a spark. Perhaps North Korea’s new leader is busy amusing himself with Disney and his new lovely wife instead of dealing with problems like the flooding that has ravaged the countryside. NGOs report that the food shortage situation is worsening. And the rogue nuclear and missile programs continue to expand. Infighting within the regime is likely intensifying, manifested in the surprise sacking in July of the country’s top military general, Ri Yong-ho. Some interpret Ri’s departure as evidence of the young reform-minded Kim trying to usurp power from the hard-line military.

It appears, however, that Kim might be trying to redirect the money the military earns through lucrative business activities toward his own patronage networks. This means there are some very unhappy generals in North Korea today. This could be a gutsy move by Kim; it could also be a stupid one if it prompts challenges from the military.

Even if Kim successfully consolidates power, he needs a new ideology in order to demand the blind obedience that characterized his father and grandfather’s rule. He appears to be downgrading, not celebrating the military, so he cannot copy his father’s "military-first" ideology. (It probably doesn’t help that his father’s ideology bankrupted the country in every respect except for making nuclear weapons.)

Kim appears to be associating himself with a hard-core version of his grandfather’s juche or "self-reliance" ideology, honed in the 1950s and 1960s, an era of relative North Korean development and affluence. The young leader has made himself the physical reincarnation of his grandfather — down to the Mao suit, protruding stomach, high-cropped hairdo, and hearty laugh. But this was also a time of deep ideological indoctrination, mass mobilization, and rejection of foreign contaminating influences.

It’s hard to square Kim’s great leap backwards with a society that is slowly and fitfully opening up. Since 1994, when his father came to power, thousands of North Koreans have embraced once-heretical capitalist concepts. Official and unofficial markets grew out of terrible food shortages of the 1990s, as people traded to survive. For a regime like North Korea’s that tries to tightly control everything, that is incredibly dangerous. A study published in 2011 by Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that 60 percent of recent North Korean defectors admitted to getting their food outside of the government’s ration system.

Other elements of modernity are starting to seep in. There are now more than a million cell-phone subscribers in North Korea, and thousands surf the web, though the content remains highly circumscribed. Markets, cell phones, and the Internet are a slippery slope. Once they enter a society, they become impossible to uproot.

North Korea is at a dead end. New leadership exercising a more rigid ideology seeks greater control over an increasingly independently-minded society and disgruntled elements of the military. This is not sustainable. With true reform, North Korea would open itself up to foreign influences and create an immediate spiral of expectations in its society that it could not control. Which is exactly why, with apologies to Mickey Mouse and Christian Dior, it’s just not going to happen.

Victor Cha is professor at Georgetown University and senior advisor and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His newest book is The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. This work was supported by the Academy of Korean Studies grant.