Keeping track of women’s hemlines is, admittedly, an unusual way to judge the mindset of a country’s leader.
However, that is just what veteran North Korea watchers have resorted to in trying to peer into one of the world’s most isolated countries and divine what its new young leader, Kim Jong-un, is thinking. For weeks now, those analysts have puzzled over photographs of women sporting miniskirts and heels in downtown Pyongyang, a stunning change from the years when Western wear was mostly shunned in favor of billowy traditional dresses or drab Mao-style work uniforms.
Then, Kim himself was shown on state TV giving a thumbs up to a slightly risque girl band performing for him and his generals, and the debate over deeper meaning began in earnest.
In a political system that tightly choreographs its messages, could short skirts — along with the appearance of Mickey Mouse and a film clip of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa at the same concert — indicate some rethinking of the North’s attitudes toward the West? Or was the fashion statement decidedly less weighty: perhaps another short-lived attempt to divert the attention of an unhappy populace?
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul, counts himself in the hopeful camp. He calls recent changes in the North “a glasnost,” a shift he said was supported by a new generation of Communist Party members, mostly the old elite’s children who, like Kim, have traveled abroad and may envision Chinese-style economic reforms.
On the other side are analysts like Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea specialist at the Fletcher School of Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, who says any belief in real change based on Kim’s education in Switzerland as a teenager is wishful thinking.
“If exposure to European cosmopolitanism were a cure for totalitarianism, one wonders how Pol Pot, who spent four years in Paris in his mid-20s, missed out on the transformative experience,” he said, referring to the former Cambodian leader.
North Korea analysts can hardly be blamed for trying to cobble together whatever scraps of information they can find. The world knows precious little about Kim, including exactly how old he is (the best guess is in his 20s) and whether he is married (news reports helpfully point out that a mystery woman making increasingly frequent appearances with him might be his sister, wife or girlfriend).
However, figuring out what he might be thinking is critical to determining how much of a threat he, and the nuclear program he inherited, poses to his neighbors, and North Korea’s enemies in the West.
So far, the puzzle pieces leave little doubt that Kim Jong-un is trying to forge a very different leadership style than his father, Kim Jong-il, whose countenance was dour enough to merit ribbing by the creators of South Park. The son, by comparison, appears to be more approachable (photos show him hooking arms with factory workers and soldiers); less threatened by foreign cultures and apparently more willing to admit failure (he told the nation of a botched rocket launch in April).
However, there is also ample evidence that Kim Jong-un, who took over late last year after his father’s death, does not plan to veer far from his father’s and grandfather’s governing policies on most issues, including maintaining a strong military and nuclear arms program and issuing frequent, florid threats against South Korea and the US. Kim Jong-un launched the rocket in April despite the likelihood that it would kill a new food aid agreement with the US, which it did, and annoy the North’s last true ally, China, which had urged restraint.