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Signs emerge of new leader taking North Korea in different direction

From Mickey Mouse and a mysterious female companion to the whiff of economic reform and the surprising ouster of his military mentor, evidence is mounting that North Korea's Kim Jong Un will lead very differently than his secretive father.

Seven months after inheriting the country from Kim Jong Il, the 20-something leader suddenly began appearing in public with a beautiful young woman. Dressed in a chic suit with a modern cut, her hair stylishly cropped, she carried herself with the poise of a first lady as she sat by his side for an unforgettable performance: Mickey Mouse grooving with women in little black dresses jamming on electric violins.

A few days later, video showed her flirting with Kim Jong Un during a visit to a kindergarten. She quickly became the subject of fervent speculation: Is she his wife? Girlfriend? A friend?

But the scent of change extends well beyond Mickey and miniskirts: A change of the guard in North Korea's powerful military is taking place as Kim retires his father's confidantes and elevates a younger generation of generals. He promoted a group of younger economists to key party positions, part of a stated push to resuscitate an economy that has lagged far behind the rest of Asia.

Bureaucrats have been dispatched to draw new foreign investment. A rare admission of failure came when Pyongyang's vaunted rocket failed to make it into orbit. Kim Jong Un has delivered a pair of public speeches, but his father avoided such displays.

To the outside world, these changes may seem trivial. In North Korea, they represent a seismic shift. For decades in a country built on a philosophy of juche, or self-reliance, shutting out the West was a state policy. So was shielding the private lives of its leaders from the masses.

On the streets of the capital city, change is afoot. Pop songs jangle from the now-ubiquitous cellphones carried by Pyongyang's well-to-do. A wave of construction has transformed the skyline. Singapore it's not, but the city has a handful of sleek new edifices looming over its tree-lined river banks.

Whether these cosmetic things translate into real policy change remains to be seen.

Long at odds with the United States and its allies over a nuclear program that Pyongyang refuses to abandon, North Korea has struggled to feed its population. A recent U.N. report said two-thirds of its 24 million people face chronic food shortages, and access to clean water, regular electricity and medicine is still remote for most of those living in the underdeveloped countryside. A U.S.-based rights group also estimates tens of thousands of prisoners remain held in Soviet-style penal camps.

Still, there's a glimmer of hope in the baby steps that North Korea is taking, said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University in South Korea, who has visited Pyongyang several times in recent years.

"That's the subtle kind of way Deng Xiaoping signaled a new direction in the 1970s in China," he said. "It doesn't start with someone saying, 'Okay, we're going to abandon communism.' It starts in smaller ways like this."

But it's too soon to talk about economic and political "reform," said Daniel Pinkston, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. North Korea needs to begin making lasting structural changes before that word can be used to describe the movement.

However, by acknowledging that problems exist and encouraging government officials to find solutions, there are hints that Kim is headed in that direction, Delury said. "It's not a policy change, but it's a governance change in the attitude, and that could be the start of something significant."

Is it Kim himself who is behind the changes, or is it the cadre of advisers who surround him — some of whom were in the inner circle of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the nation's founder? Like most things in North Korea, it is very likely a carefully choreographed campaign.

In its own, sometimes cryptic way, Pyongyang is trying to portray its 20-something chief as a 21st century leader in touch with his people's modern-day lives.

That is a marked contrast from his father, who ruled for 17 years under a veil of secrecy. Discussing the first family was strictly taboo. The leader's consorts, including Kim Jong Un's mother, were kept from the public eye.

As North Koreans cautiously navigate the changes taking place and gauge how safe it is to veer off long-prescribed paths, a sense of fear still pervades every interaction. And some things remain secret, including the identity of the mystery woman and her relationship to Kim Jong Un.

Signs emerge of new leader taking North Korea in different direction 07/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 17, 2012 10:11pm]
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