There are reasons to be dismissive of North Korea’s potential for reform: The family-run police state, now with its third-generation leader, maintains city-size labor camps and funnels precious resources to its nuclear program rather than its impoverished millions. It has also raised and deflated hopes of economic reform in the past — most recently 10 years ago, when it introduced liberalizing pro-market policies, then quickly cracked down.
Whether this time is different, analysts and outside government officials say, depends on the ambitions of its 20-something supreme leader, who can either bring his destitute country out of isolation or keep it there, figuring it too risky to loosen state controls.
Analysts emphasize that it could take years for a clear answer, but they point to early indications that Kim is willing to run the country differently than his father, who died eight months ago. Some of those signs are purely cosmetic: State media portray Kim as an affable modernist by presenting him alongside his stylish wife and showing him delighting in performances by miniskirt-wearing pop stars.
The greater substance comes from Kim’s occasional speeches, in which he has talked about ending North Koreans’ belt-tightening and “improving people’s living standards.” In one notable appearance, he also chastised North Korean officials for their “outdated, ideological” way of thinking.
It is not known whether the Swiss-educated Kim has a worldview different from that of his dour and militant father. But in a move two months ago that some analysts describe as an encouraging sign, the new leader dismissed a top hard-line military official who had been a trusted lieutenant to his father.
“It’s premature to make any judgment about what will happen, but we were in a system last year [under Kim Jong Il] where it seemed like policy had been set and it was distinctly retrogressive, with no reasonable prospect for change,” said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Now, I think that there is an anticipatory buzz that maybe there could be something new.”
Several media outlets that employ North Korean defectors, including Washington-based Radio Free Asia, have reported that Pyongyang is rolling out agricultural policy changes that mark a significant break from the state-controlled economy.