(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) The ghost of Deng Xiaoping may lurk in Pyongyang, with signs that the world's youngest head of state is trying to shake up his isolated and impoverished nation.
From the sudden dismissal of his top military leader, on grounds of "illness," to a pop music show featuring American icons Mickey Mouse and Rocky Balboa, to a novel guest- worker programme allowing North Koreans to earn hard currency in China, Kim Jong-un is taking a firm grip on power even as he loosens strictures and tells officials to try new things.
With a million-man army and nuclear weapons programme, North Korea remains a source of uncertainty and instability, with many questions about whether Kim Jong-un can bring the Democratic People's Republic of Korea peaceably into the 21st century. But the example of Deng Xiaoping's early efforts to moderniee and moderate a deeply ideological China suggests promising parallels.
Some North Korea experts didn't expect the young heir to make it this far. After Kim Jong-Il died in December, former National Security Council Director Victor Cha gave North Korea "several months" before total collapse. After all, young Kim's shotgun succession had been rushed into action only in 2008 " unlike his father who had been carefully groomed for decades before becoming the Supreme Leader. Pyongyang's desperate transfer of power to the world's only communist king was expected to be the straw that would, at long last, break the camel's back.
No such luck. North Korea is still there, with the young, inexperienced Kim at the helm. He's been an exceptionally active leader, giving major policy speeches and pressing the flesh with citizens, soldiers, cadres and schoolchildren. Of course, his reign is still in its infancy. But already Kim's leadership style, political inclinations and attitude toward the world are starting to come into focus " and a big surprise is that Kim appears to be heading in what he describes as a "new, creative and enterprising" direction, nudging the national compass away from a fixation on his father's "military-first politics" toward a Deng-like pragmatic emphasis on economic development.
Kim's human touch caught a wave of global media attention after he showed up at a pop music concert sitting next to a stylish woman, later revealed to be his wife, Ri Sol Ju, as they watched Disney characters dance in front of a screen playing clips of the film Rocky IV.
The international community witnessed the North's new realism in April, when Pyongyang admitted failure of a rocket launch.
The global media herd raced off to their next story. But inside North Korea, this admission was just the beginning of a new spirit of acknowledging problems. It's not glasnost yet, but Kim has talked openly about North Korea's food problem, consumer goods problem and the importance of "fully solving the problems arising in developing the economy and improving the people's living standards."
Although Kim is not yet talking about "market socialism," so far, he's leaving the small private markets alone, encouraging special economic zones and sending officials abroad for economic learning trips. Along with the new guest-worker programme that will reportedly allow tens of thousands of North Koreans to go earn better wages in China, economic policy shows signs of increasing pragmatism, experimentalism and transparency " hallmarks of China's epic shift from Mao to Deng.
The foreign policy implications of this budding Deng-ist spirit in Pyongyang are not yet clear. Besides, Seoul, Washington and Beijing are preoccupied by their own upcoming presidential elections and party congresses. As the dust of domestic politics settles over the course of this year, a clearer picture will emerge of whether Kim Jong-un's creative and enterprising spirit can breathe new life into stalled efforts to bring prosperity to North Korea and peace to Northeast Asia.
John Delury is an assistant professor of East Asian Studies at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies and a senior fellow of Asia Society's Center on US-China Relations