The year 2013 is shaping up as one in which the isolated and belligerent enclave of North Korea could begin to pursue a China-style reform process to revive its impoverished economy. The decision to broadcast a reform-minded new year’s speech by new leader Kim Jong-un, rather than the faxed transcript to official newspapers favoured by his father, indicates that things are changing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Against a backdrop of the country’s brush, hammer and sickle motif, Kim gave an impassioned address calling for economic renewal and an end to conflict with the South. This year will bear witness to “great creations and changes” even a “radical turnabout”, he said in the first new year speech North Koreans heard since the death of his grandfather, the North’s founding president, Kim Il-sung, 19 years ago.
The young Kim is already setting himself apart from his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011. He is often seen with his wife Ri Sol-ju, and rumours of her pregnancy have given the populace a lift. His standing has been given a major boost by the successful launch of a long-range rocket last month, despite renewed criticism from the United Nations, and even from from Pyongyang’s ally China.
The North has tested two atomic devices since 2006, on both occasions in the face of criticism and sanctions from the UN. Despite sanctions, the communist state is still functioning, although it remains desperately poor. Its agriculture is backward, its industry outdated, natural disasters have wrought havoc and it often fails to feed its 24 million people.
Significantly, Kim appeared to reach out to South Korea, which has just elected its first woman president, the conservative Park Geun-Hye. The Pyongyang cadres loathed her predecessor Lee Myung-Bak, but Park has signalled a desire for greater engagement with Pyongyang.
Bringing the most unlikely of bedfellows together, sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula might be brought closer.