Waiting for North Korean Reform…and Waiting…

Bruce Klingner /

In recent weeks, Pyongyang has begun yet another charm offensive by reaching out to Beijing, Washington, and Tokyo. The diplomatic initiative follows the anointing of the more dynamic and charismatic Kim Jong-un as leader, leading pundits to perceive subtle new signs of impending North Korean economic reform and a less belligerent foreign policy.

One news organization proclaimed, “North Korea has virtually abandoned the planned economy.” A South Korean academic predicted that “we can expect the reforms and openness to pick up speed and scale once Pyongyang’s relations improve with Seoul and Washington.”

But there is less than meets the eye to the diplomatic outreach. Eminence grise Chang Song-taek traveled to China but gained only Beijing’s pledged assistance to resurrect two long dormant and failed special economic zones in North Korea. Beijing may again be tempted to offer financial assistance to convince Kim Jong-un to adopt economic reforms, despite unsuccessful similar efforts with his father. The new North Korean three-card monty dealer may have found a patsy willing to ante up for another game.

Pyongyang’s recent outreach to the U.S. was merely to affirm the regime’s intent to maintain its nuclear weapons. The North Koreans also demanded that the U.S. first make significant unilateral concessions, a hardening from its position earlier this year.

But this has not stopped speculation of forthcoming change in North Korea. Modern prognosticators interpret cryptic North Korean statements as portending major policy shifts. These clues, in turn, affirm a long-favored theory that a faction of North Korean soft-liners hide within the regime bureaucracy, furtively sending signals to the outside world for help.

Such benevolent assessments of North Korea are inevitably followed by policy recommendations that, in order to strengthen the nascent reform movement, the U.S. must offer new unconditional benefits or remove sanctions.

There is a long history of grasping at North Korean straws in the wind. After the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, the U.S. State Department predicted that his successor, Kim Jong-il, was actually a closet reformer and North Korea was on the cusp of implementing bold economic reform. After he failed to materialize as a reformer, Pyongyang was depicted as riven by factions competing for influence over the malleable North Korean dictator. When numerous concessions didn’t bring about the desired outcome, it was blamed on insufficient U.S. and South Korean largesse or evil neoconservative influences in Washington and Seoul. However, the theory suffered greatly after Pyongyang responded to President Barack Obama’s proffered open hand of dialogue with provocations and deadly attacks.

But the death of Kim Jong-il and ascendency of the Western-educated Kim Jong-un has resurrected the “hope springs eternal” school of policy. Visions of Kim fils watching Disney characters cavorting on stage, listening to Frank Sinatra, and watching excerpts from Rocky IV, all while accompanied by his stylish wife, triggered suggestions of new dawn in Pyongyang.

But is the new North Korean leader willing to significantly alter his country’s policies? So far the supporting facts are few and based on purported private statements rather than government pronouncements. As University of California Professor Stephen Haggard correctly argues, “Economic reforms or improvements [in North Korea] are designed to consolidate power and forestall political change, not lead it.”

To date, Kim Jong-un has shown a change in style but not policies from his predecessors. It would be naïve to think that Jong-un’s embrace of some Western cultural icons supersedes long-standing North Korean resistance to capitalism, democracy, and a non-threatening foreign policy. As such, the U.S. and its allies should be wary when responding to growing calls to retread the same tired path of offering concessions without gaining reciprocal actions by Pyongyang.