If North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong-un, wanted to end the
brutal and destructive tyranny that his father and
grandfather imposed on the country, he would need support
from abroad. The military and Communist Party elites who
control and benefit from that system would have to be brought
round or bought off, and that would require lots of foreign
aid and a global amnesty for their crimes. So how would he
get the foreigners to help?
Well, he'd have to show them that he was willing to reform -
but he couldn't be too obvious about it at first, or those
elites would just get rid of him. He'd drop a hint here, make
a gesture there, and hope that the foreigners would trust him
and help him to change the country. Rather like the Burmese
generals did when they began to dismantle their own
half-century-old dictatorship two years ago.
Unfortunately, Kim Jong-un would drop the same hints and make
the same gestures if his only wish was to sucker the outside
world into propping up the bankrupt system in North Korea
with more big shipments of free food and fuel. There's no way
to read his mind, so how should the foreigners respond?
This is not a theoretical question, for he is sending out
those signals. Never mind the cosmetic stuff like being seen
in public with a new wife who dresses in fashionable Western
clothes. In his televised New Year's message to the Korean
people, he spoke of the need to ''remove confrontation
between the North and the South,'' and called for dramatic
improvements in the national economy.
It's the first time the regime has ever celebrated the
Western New Year (including fireworks in Pyongyang). It's 19
years since the country's leader last spoke to the people
directly. He may be trying to tell them and the rest of the
world that he is starting down the road of reform, or he may
be bluffing. What to do?
Unfortunately, since he's not making any political or
economic reforms at home at the moment - that's what he MIGHT
do if he had foreign help - we can't conclude anything about
his intentions from his domestic policies. And his foreign
policy is hardly encouraging either.
North Korea doesn't have much by way of a foreign policy. The
only consistent thread is its obsession with military power
(it has one of the world's biggest armies, though it has
about the population of Australia), and latterly with
ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
Both of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons tests, in 2006 and 2012,
were conducted when Kim Jong-il was still alive and in power,
but Kim Jong-un has not repudiated them. Moreover, he has
continued to test ballistic missiles, including the launch
last month of a rocket that his regime says could hit the
United States. (It was ostensibly used to launch a satellite,
which it did, but the technology for satellite launchers and
ICBMs is almost identical.)
On the other hand, here is a man whose only claim to power is
heredity, in a country that does not have a formally
recognised monarchy. To consolidate his power, he must
persuade the military and party elites that he is a reliable
successor who will perpetuate the system that keeps them fat
and happy, so his current aggressive posture in foreign
policy is really no guide to his real intentions either.
In fact, at this point there is really no way of telling what
he means to do. The rest of the world, and in particular the
United States and North Korea's neighbours, South Korea,
China and Japan, are going to have to make their decisions
blind. What can they do that would help Kim Jong-un to bring
the country out of its cave and start loosening the domestic
tyranny, without actually making matters worse if he is not a
secret reformer? The safest course would be to encourage
dialogue between North and South Korea (which has just
elected a new president, Park Geun-hye, who has declared her
presidency ready to initiate unconditional talks with the
North). It would also be sensible to ease back on the
embargoes and other restrictions on North Korean imports for
a while, since they are obviously achieving nothing in terms
of stopping its weapons projects anyway.
And what if Kim-Jong-un dares not or simply does not want to
respond to these gestures with more promising moves himself?
Then you just give up and go back to the policy of
containment that has had so little success over the years.
North Korea is really a very small threat (except for its own
people, of course), and it's safe to take a little risk in
the hope that the new ruler will respond.
It's the country's only hope. There is not going to be a
North Korean spring in the Arab style.
• Gwynne Dyer is an independent London