By Brian P. Klein, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Brian P. Klein is an economic consultant and former U.S. diplomat. The views expressed are his own.
Disney characters dancing on stage, women wearing short skirts, and a country's new leader making speeches, smiling, and glad-handing military officers. In most places around the world, that’s nothing unusual. But for North Korea, it marks a sea change in image if not quite reality.
Political transition in Pyongyang has reached its apex with every major title bestowed on Kim Jong Un from head of the military to party boss. Despite concerns over a dynastic handover to the young and untested leader, purportedly just shy of 30 and apparently married, the regime didn’t collapse. And in a highly unusual show of openness this past April, foreign journalists were allowed to cover a rocket launch that ultimately crashed soon after take off. State media even reported the failure.
The new Kim isn’t just continuing the family business of running a country. He’s a significant generational change, intended or not. And change is coming one position at a time among the septuagenarian leaders that guided his father into decades of isolation and economic stagnation. Ri Yong Ho – the former head of the 1.2 million soldier army, who fought alongside Kim’s grandfather – is out, while General Hyon Yong Chol rises to Vice Marshal. More changes are likely as Kim moves supporters closer to his inner circle. Indeed, Reuters has suggested as many as 20 replacements have already been made.
Impetus for change is accelerating along with the world outside North Korea. A dramatically different regional and international environment now exists from the time Kim Jong Il took over in 1994. Gaze across the Yalu river to the north and the Chinese city of Dandong, with its high rises, traffic-filled roads and store shelves full of goods stands in stark contrast to the North Korean city of Sinuiju. The colored light show at “Friendship Bridge” must sting locals a mile away, where the city is shrouded in darkness. South Korea, too, blazes with economic activity and wealth, signs of which either float over with activists’ balloon diplomacy (parcels of money, CDs, and snack foods drifting in a low-tech wave over the demilitarized zone) or smuggled across the border with China.
The global club of isolated states, meanwhile, has shrunk considerably, with many either opening or crumbling. Myanmar’s military leaders have decided that reform is a much better option than continuing as a pariah state. Widespread sanctions have been lifted and tremendous new wealth is in the offing. Don’t expect any major nuclear construction projects or missile technology transfers from North Korea (a major hard currency earner) in the future. Cuba, too, has also taken tentative steps at economic reform without any backlash against the Castros. Quite to the contrary – they’ve been credited for the recent improvements, if not decades of stagnation.
North Korea’s propaganda machine can easily spin change, and the third Kim dynasty will be seen making history, not destroying his father’s legacy. But Kim Jong Un may also see quite clearly that relying on China won’t ensure his country’s future growth or development. While the rest of the world has made a mint on trading with the world’s second largest economy, selling everything from raw materials to lightly manufactured goods, North Korea remains lost in a backwater. Even among its regional peers, Pyongyang lags decades behind. Wander the streets of nearby Hanoi and a wave of mopeds and cars signal new wealth and an emerging Vietnamese middle class. North Korea’s streets are ornamented by crisply suited traffic guards with very little to do. None of these changes are likely lost on Kim.
Gone too are the days of winning concessions from the outside world with belligerence. Negotiations, concessions for food aid or South Korean investment don’t flow from missile tests anymore. A rocket launch of old could spark a round or two of shuttle diplomacy between Washington, Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul with aid packages in tow. These days, its a few brief television moments and then nothing but a long silence to follow.
North Korea’s first attempt at engagement since the elder Kim’s death had actually achieved some cautious results. There was a glimmer of hope for renewing Six Party Talks, IAEA inspectors returning and a fresh start on verifiable denuclearization. What failed this time wasn’t only a rocket launch, but the North Korean military’s outdated strategy of flexing its offensive muscles.
Still, the threat of wider conflict or all out war remains remote. A military confrontation between North and South Korea would result in mutual destruction. Old school artillery does the devastating work particularly well. Even after the height of 2010 tensions, with alleged North Korean attacks on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of a naval ship off the coast with dozens of lives lost, the joint North-South Kaesong Industrial Complex manufacturing zone near the border remained in operation. Neither side was apparently willing to end the project, which gives the North hard currency and the South a tentative influence on its neighbor.
Minor changes aside, it’s still far too early to tell whether Kim will chart a new defense and economic policy course. The historical and defense-related issues on the Korean peninsula make for a unique environment with little resemblance to the Arab Spring. Mickey Mouse, with all his pluck and candor, does not a Glasnost make.
Still, incremental opening is important. Analysts have been far too preoccupied over the last thirty years with collapse scenarios and prospects for unification along the lines of East and West Germany. All the while, the regime has survived famines, sanctions, the loss of major donor countries and two major leadership transitions. None of these damaged the Kim family’s grip on power, and as a nearly 30-something-year-old in charge, Kim Jong Un may be around for a long, long time.
As Kim begins to make his mark on domestic and international affairs he should take away the fact that his father’s old shoes don’t fit. As a Korean proverb goes “too many carpenters knock over the house.” A policy informed less by the antiquated rattlings of a Cold War generation and more by the world around him might actually bring about the respect and change the new Mr. Kim might want – and, more importantly, a brighter future for the impoverished North Korean people.
For the U.S., this tentative opening provides an opportune moment to re-engage with North Korea, but with a decidedly different approach. Rather than aiming for high policy with nuclear disarmament front and center, a more nuanced approach would lead to short-term tangible results. Back in 2008, the New York Philharmonic made a historic visit to Pyongyang and received a reserved, but warm reception. It was an opportunity to showcase the United States as non-enemy to a population fed on a steady stream of anti-American propaganda.
The U.S. should now return the favor and invite North Korean musicians to New York. Such a basic overture is neither reward nor acceptance of North Korea’s brutal human rights record, its brazen attacks on South Korean territory, or years of flaunting U.N. resolutions. It is a cautious, pragmatic step, nothing more. Ping-pong thawed U.S.-China Cold War enmity forty years ago. Perhaps a concerto or even a bit of jazz will do the trick this time around.