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Kim shows verve in North Korea

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Tantalizing hints of change have seeped out of North Korea in recent weeks. Not least, the callow Kim Jong Un has confounded Pyongyang-watchers who had predicted that he would slavishly follow his late father's recipe for keeping an iron grip on power.

The 20-something ruler inherited the family dictatorship when Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack in December. The late Kim ran the state as a mafia racket, earning hard currency from drugs, counterfeiting and illicit-arms sales while using his nuclear-weapons program to blackmail the rest of the world for aid. He diverted lavish resources to the army and to a tiny elite, and he ground nearly everyone else under his platform heel, dispatching perceived enemies to his prison camps by the hundreds of thousands.

In tone the young Kim has quickly signalled change from his father's paranoid rule, and with unexpected verve. Last month he fired the army's senior general, a hard-liner, and a civilian was hastily promoted. One reading is that Kim is retreating from his father's "military first" stance.

His public appearances are also different. He is often seen laughing with those around him. Where Kim Jong Il's consorts were kept out of sight, a stylish young wife has recently appeared by the Great Successor's side. Last month the couple graced the front row of a debut concert for the all-girl Moranbong Band, whose miniskirts, Disney cameos and foreign tunes such as My Way all broke new ground, for North Korea if nowhere else.

In public speeches -- Kim Jong Il's were dubbed over by emotional commentary -- Kim says that the years of belt-tightening are over. He calls for fresh economic thinking.

Does this amount to much? The question matters because, if the younger Kim really is his country's Gorbachev, then the West should seize every opportunity to help him go further. If it is merely another charade, then more pressure needs to be applied to the world's ugliest regime.

So far there seems to be room for limited encouragement, albeit very limited. The main hopes should be focused on opening up the country's economy, rather than on looking for political change.

The politics have changed in tone, but they still fit the Kim mould. Most obviously the gulag remains, and so do the shoot-to-kill orders for North Koreans fleeing to China. All those smiles and visits to kindergartens and fairs also fit a pattern, not of the father but the grandfather: Kim Il Sung, the dynasty's brutal founder, had himself depicted in his propaganda as the country's parent-in-chief, tucking children into bed.

The imagery of state-sponsored infantilism persists: North Koreans are a pure, innocent race historically abused by outside powers such as Japan, the United States and even China. They need a caring, protective leader. Kim Jong Un even looks uncannily like his grandfather.

The fact that North Koreans were so much better off in the cold-war days, when China and the Soviet Union vied to provide aid, sadly reinforces the nostalgia. The people in Kim's broken country earn less, eat less and use less electricity than they did 25 years ago.

This misery explains why the hints of change on the economic front may yet lead to something. The economy appears to be becoming both more open, though not yet to South Korea, and less monolithic. Visitors increasingly report how parts of the state are vying with each other for investment, especially Chinese cash. One rumour is that Kim fired the general because the army itself was diving too enthusiastically into business. This counts as competition of sorts.

In the past, economic reform has come to nothing. A decade ago, after the famine, price controls and rationing were scrapped, mainly because nothing was left to ration. Soon the controls were re-imposed. In 2009 a currency "reform" amounted to a confiscation of hard-won savings, rendering North Koreans even more dependent on the state.

Violent political control has always trumped all. North Korea has too often taken foreign money with no intention of returning it.

So there is every reason to remain suspicious -- but what is there to lose by encouraging trade and teaching North Koreans the very basics of a market economy? A few cronies will get richer, but other North Koreans will be a little less impoverished and a little better prepared for the day when the vile Kim dynasty goes.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2012 A11

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