This article was first published at 38 North, a blog of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS. It is republished with kind permission.
The recent developments since Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech raise the possibility of a generational shift in the leadership and political culture of North Korea at the highest level. Combined with a recent significant increase in the role for market forces in the North Korean economy, this generational change may present an opportunity for the global community to spur North Korea on a more peaceful and prosperous path, especially if Kim emerges as a North Korean Deng Xiaoping or even Mikhail Gorbachev.
The most visible manifestation of this generational shift was Kim’s decision to dispatch his younger sister Kim Yo-jong to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the recent Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. That Kim entrusted a relatively inexperienced young woman, barely 30 years old, with this critically important mission came as a surprise because it was largely unprecedented in North Korean history. There have been a few prominent women in the top North Korean leadership — Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-un’s aunt, being the most recent example. However, Kim Yo-jong is the first woman to not only play such a high-profile public role, but also to do so at such a young age in such a strict patriarchal culture. Kim Yo-jong, who was educated along with Kim Jong-un in Switzerland and is likely her brother’s most trusted political confidant, is now among the most powerful figures in North Korea after Kim himself and possibly his young wife, Ri Sol-ju. It is reported that Kim Yo-jong has been the choreographer of the Kim regime’s public image. It was apparently Kim Yo-jong who encouraged her brother to cultivate a friendship with Dennis Rodman in an effort to “humanize” his image. On her visit to South Korea, she captured the world’s attention and won the hearts of many South Koreans with her winning smiles, youthful charm, and Western-style dress.
Kim Jong-un’s elevation of Kim Yo-jong into the political limelight underscores the underlying reality that North Korea is now ruled by a young leader in his early 30s who is displaying signs of adopting a leadership style that is different from his father and grandfather. Besides Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un has been filling other key leadership roles in North Korea with younger, trusted cadres in a generational shift. That Kim has been giving a publicly broadcast New Year’s address every year is itself a departure from Kim Jong-il, his father, who tended to shun public limelight.
Kim’s regular public appearances with his wife alongside him are also a departure from his father and grandfather. A recent example was his surprise visit to Beijing, accompanied by his wife. Previous “first ladies” of North Korea very rarely appeared on formal public occasions walking or sitting next to their husbands. Ri, who reportedly visited South Korea in 2005, not only appears next to her husband but has been seen affectionately holding his arm or hand. She also is often dressed in stylish Western clothing in a departure from the traditional socialist garb worn by North Koreans. What is possibly most significant is that she is rarely seen wearing the “loyalty badge” bearing the image of Kim’s father and grandfather worn by North Koreans on their chest, which could be perceived as a “subversive” sign.
Some might dismiss all this as cosmetic changes of style bearing no substantive significance. However, history teaches that stylistic changes sometimes herald real changes. The most obvious current illustration of this is the issue of hijab and freedoms accorded to women in Muslim countries. In Korean history as well as in the histories of other traditionally non-Western cultures such as China, Japan, and even Russia, one of the first visible signs of westernization was a change in dress. This took place in late 19th century Korea, China, and Japan as these countries embraced Western clothing as part of their modernizing reform. In Russia, Peter the Great, the great westernizer, imposed a Western dress code in his court and forced his nobles to cut their long beards. Indeed, one of the first hints that change was afoot in Gorbachev’s Russia was the fact that the Soviet leader appeared regularly in public with his wife, Raisa Gorbachev, who was often dressed in stylish Western clothing, in contrast to the wives of his sterile predecessors. In a conformist patriarchal culture such as North Korea — let alone Muslim countries — a change in dress and role of women in public can thus portend real changes.
Throughout his unexpected peace overture to South Korea in his New Year’s address and his subsequent “charm offensive,” Kim Jong-un has demonstrated a dynamic leadership style. South Korea’s presidential envoys who met Kim in Pyongyang were reportedly impressed with his apparent sincerity and direct, pragmatic style and concluded that he was someone they could do business with. These impressions of Kim and his leadership style, which the envoys conveyed to American officials, may have helped persuade U.S. President Donald Trump to accept Kim’s offer of a summit. It is more than likely that the presence of Kim’s wife at the dinner he hosted for these envoys helped to soften his image in their eyes and win their sympathy.
Given the opacity of the Pyongyang regime, it is not clear exactly what is driving these recent changes in Kim’s leadership style and North Korea’s political culture. Perhaps, after years of bloody purges and the placement of younger, more trusted cadres into key leadership posts, Kim has now firmly consolidated his power in the country and feels he can afford to adopt his own leadership style and vision for his country’s future. Kim may also have been influenced by his experience in Switzerland, which may have instilled a desire to “westernize” and modernize his country, at least to a certain extent. It is also possible that his wife and younger sister have been encouraging this desire.
The economy could also be another major force driving change. It seems clear that Kim has been presiding over major changes that have helped to generate considerable economic growth. Under Kim, market forces have assumed an increasingly larger role in the economy; there are now markets all over the country and many North Koreans have turned into quasi-private entrepreneurs. In another economic and cultural sea change, women who earn income from market activities are now the breadwinners in many North Korean families. Thus, it may be that Kim’s need to deliver on economic development as part of his byungjin strategy (simultaneous nuclear and economic development), along with the damage to North Korea’s economy inflicted by the global sanctions against his nuclear program, has generated expectations and political pressures that he feels he should handle in his own unique style.
It remains to be seen if this generational shift in Pyongyang and the recent changes in the North Korean economy and society will translate into changes in the country’s relations with the outside world. Kim is young, untested, and relatively inexperienced in the global diplomatic arena, and much remains uncertain about his aims and negotiating style. There are risks for the global community in dealing with a leader who remains largely unknown. On the key question of denuclearization, for example, it is not clear if Kim harbors a genuine openness to anything more than a temporary freeze in his nuclear and missile tests. The upcoming inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK summits will provide an opportunity for the leaders of South Korea and the United States to take Kim’s measure and probe his intentions on this vital issue.
While much caution is necessary given the past history of duplicitous North Korean dealings with Seoul and Washington, there is a tantalizing hope that Kim represents a new generation and a positive shift in Pyongyang. Can the global community partner with him in steering North Korea towards a more peaceful coexistence with the outside world and improved living standards for the North Korean masses? Only time will tell if Kim turns out to be a Korean Deng Xiaoping or, as far-fetched as this may sound, even a Korean Gorbachev. At this stage, Seoul and Washington can only do what is incumbent for the moment — namely, careful preparations for the upcoming summits to test this proposition.
Jongsoo Lee is Senior Managing Director at Brock Securities LLC and Center Associate at Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University. The opinions expressed in this essay are solely his own. He can be followed on Twitter at @jameslee004