Now that China and North Korea have gotten their stories (mostly) straight about Kim Jong Il’s five-day trip to northeast China, a small mountain of evidence exists which is worth analyzing.
Visions on the First Day of Class
In Pyongyang, KCNA is now promoting a new story about the year 1960 describing how young Kim Jong Il (all of 19 at the time) started the school year by ascending a hill, whereupon he was seized by a vision of a strong Korea:
Pyongyang, September 1 (KCNA) — On September 1, Juche 49 (1960) General Secretary Kim Jong Il began studying at Kim Il Sung University.
That day, he climbed Ryongnam Hill on the campus and recited a poem “Korea, I Will Glorify Thee” reflecting his will to add luster to Korea, true to the intention of President Kim Il Sung.
Since then, all his revolutionary activities have been oriented towards a grand goal of demonstrating the dignity and honor of the nation all over the world by turning the country into an invincible one.
The story, having reminded us of the profundity of youth, then morphs into the standard hagiography that freezes Kim Jong Il in time as a historical figure:
Among his “energetic ideological and theoretical activities” Kim is praised for having “newly expounded the position and role of the leader in the revolutionary struggle and proved the originality of the President’s revolutionary ideas” (emphasis added). Does North Korean revolutionary theory allow for collective leadership? Ever since Brian Myers deconstructed juche’s hallow nature, no one seems courageous enough to discuss the ideological traps the regime has set for itself.
Encouraging nuggets in the piece indicating an interest in reform (lauding Kim’s “clear understanding of the changed situation and the requirement of the revolution”) coexist along with deadeningly orthodox praise (among Kim’s “tremendous achievements in all fields” are included “grand monumental edifices built throughout the country”). These kind of bifurcated statements from Pyongyang which both suggest reform and hammer home the Kimist conservative line will probably continue.
In a separate piece, Kim Jong Il’s first day of class at Kim Il Sung University (where, as existing photographs indicate, he tended to sit in the back row) is now being interpreted as his “assumption of leadership” at the university in the same breath that songs praising the new successor are discussed. Youth, so long as they are the fruit of Kim Il Song’s loins, seem to be capable of any precocious feat.
But much of the discussion of youth masks the deepening age of the central leadership of the DPRK. Ri Yong Su, who participated in yesterday’s fake celebration of Kim Jong Il’s “leadership” of Kim U. in 1960, is a good example. Ri is the head of the Democratic Youth Leage; he has held the same position since at least the 1980s, when he was arguing for a very orthodox interpretation of the student “chaos” caused in Tiananmen Square in China and the fall of East Germany. I have bumped into Ri, figuratively speaking, more than a few times in the archives of the East German state. He is not a reformer, and he has certainly not forgotten the lessons of 1989 and 1990. To imagine that entrenched North Korean bureaucrats and socialist elites can simply turn their backs on four or five decades of orthodoxy and are willing to blindly follow the Chinese model merely because they like the smell of RMB is a misguided one.
Bracing for Change
Evidence collected by Haggard and Noland suggests that North Koreans know that their system is bound to change in some fashion when Kim Jong Il relinquishes power, but this KCNA editorial (also from September 1) seems to imply rather openly that big changes are on the way:
Pyongyang, September 1 (KCNA) – Rodong Sinmun Wednesday in a jointly signed article calls upon all the people to make redoubled efforts, planting their feet on the ground and looking at the world. It says:
Planting one’s feet on the ground and looking at the world means doing anything by oneself in one’s right senses, learning everything worth learning and introducing whatever beneficial to suit one’s actual conditions and bringing everything to the level of the world’s latest science and technology.
The slogan of the Workers’ Party of Korea “Plant Your Feet on the Ground and Look at the World!” serves as a revolutionary and militant banner clearly indicating the shortcut to reaching faster the eminence of a thriving socialist nation in conformity with the trend of the times and requirements of the reality of the DPRK….
The Korean people could take a firm hold on the eminence of CNC by their own efforts and with their own technology by planting their feet on the ground even under the situation where everything was in short supply…
Perhaps, in spite of the mandatory caveats, the soft Chinese reports that North Korea is finally ready to be “inspired by the Chinese example” of economic reform might prove to be correct. At the very least, editorials like this represent an attempt by the North Koreans to create a bit of flexibility for themselves, assuming that anyone reads Rodong Sinmun seriously anymore.
For its part, the Chinese press has gone into full-throated encouragement mode, as in this Huanqiu Shibao editorial entitled “The World Should Encourage North Korea to Open Up and Reform” and this short Huanqiu item on why investors should be bullish about the “internationalization” of Rason port in extreme northeast Korea. China Southern Broadcasting is sending a group of journalists to North Korea, following on the heels of a sports delegation from Beijing that just returned. The Chinese Embassy in North Korea, whose head travelled up to Jilin to meet with Kim Jong Il, is now reporting on a raft of cooperative meetings, such as yesterday’s get-together of PLA Shenyang-area brass with North Korean diplomats in Pyongyang. And behind all the solicitousness toward the North Koreans lies a sometimes-expressed apprehension toward Japanese power and a knowledge that North Korean collapse would bring Japan into play again on the Korean peninsula, traditionally not a situation with positive outcomes for China. Finally, as if to emphasize the benign nature of the DPRK, a group of North Korean dancers served as the centerpiece of an extended photo opportunity in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This is quite a striking photo gallery. Fear not the handbag!