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Asia

Interview: North Korea's new style, old face

North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Un has recently emphasized the importance on the economy and the lives of the North Korean people. That alone does not mean reform, says North Korea expert Daniel Pinkston.

Daniel Pinkston is Deputy Project Director, North East Asia Program of the International Crisis Group. He focuses on inter-Korean relations, domestic politics, regional security, nonproliferation and the reform process in North Korea.

DW.DE: In what seems to be the highest level diplomatic meeting between North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un since taking power seven months ago, Kim told a high ranking visiting official from China's Communist Party that his priority is to develop the economy and improve living standards in the starving country. When has the world last heard such rhetoric from a North Korean leader?

Daniel Pinkston: There have been periods where the senior leadership with the top leader, including Kim Jong Il, had mentioned that the economy was a priority. What many people on the outside interpret it to mean is that reform is imminent.

Now, there is a new leader and he does have a different style. But you can focus on the economy while maintaining the same systems and structures and so forth. There has not been any change in policies, incentives, institutions, laws, structures, rules, ideology or any of those things. So any of those things will take a much longer time and we don't know if Kim Jong Un has those intentions. We will have to watch and see. I was just reading the news of the day and most of the headlines were about Kim Jong Un and references to what they are calling "Kim Jong Il patriotism." So there is a lot of news and propaganda about his father and about continuing the same policy line. So we don't know if that's just words or lip-service towards the hard-liners or if there will be reforms. But in fact, we are not seeing any reforms as yet.

As you mentioned, Kim Jong Un is presenting himself in very different manner than his father and predecessor did - including attending a show with Disney figures like Mickey Mouse or riding a roller coaster with his wife. In a country where the public image of its leaders is carefully modeled, can this be interpreted as a sign of change or reform?

It is certainly a change in style and the personalities are quite different. I was there early last month and I was really struck by the intensity of the propaganda surrounding Kim Jong Un and the continuity and intensity of the personality cult around the Kim family. But, if we think about this in any political system, or if we even want to move down to smaller organizations, if you work for a media organization or a private firm or an NGO or whether you belong to a military unit - any type of social collectivity that has a leader at the top has a certain latitude or discretion in how he or she leads the unit or the country. (...)

Disney performance put on for Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un enjoyed a performance with Disney characters not long ago

The images that you mentioned - yes, they are very striking. They make a big impression on all of us. And they could be signs of forthcoming changes and reforms. But I try to focus on the things under the surface - the legal foundations, the rules, who has power, how resources are allocated - all of those things really matter. And once we make an assessment of any real changes there, then we can talk about reforms and opening.

One thing that has changed is that Kim Jong Un reshuffled top military officials by ousting his Vice Marshal Ri Yong-Ho. What is the meaning of that, in terms of change or cementing the power of the new leader? Is it laying the foundations for possible change in the future?

That could be. The process was not transparent. Of course the official reason out of Pyongyang was that he was removed for health reasons. That is not really credible. (...). Even if he had been ill, the normal practice in North Korea is for senior officials to stay on the job and stay in their positions despite any serious illness or even terminal illness. They would remain in their positions until death. So it's almost certain he was removed or purged for some internal reasons that we do not know. There has been a lot of speculation. He could have been involved in some kind of corruption scandal.

There could have been some big disagreements over policy. But if you look at dictatorships in general, this is a common occurrence from time to time. And when you are solidifying your power following a transition, it is prudent to remove anyone who could challenge you - and in particular those with military experience, those in senior military positions that command a lot of troops under them. Those types of people form the most formidable threats. So I had expected some kind of purge to happen. (…)

I would like to say, that's life in a dictatorship and that's how they operate and that's how they deal with internal political issues.

Interview: Matthias von Hein
Editor: Sarah Berning

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