In his first months in power, North Korea's new 20-something leader Kim Jong Un seems like he is on a mission to differentiate his regime from that of his father's before him, from speaking in public to stepping out with his fashionable young wife. Brooke speaks to reporter Blaine Harden, who says that the images coming out of North Korea show a friendlier, softer dictator, despite the fact that North Korea remains uniquely oppressive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: North Korean’s new 20-something leader Kim Jong Un has been capturing the world’s attention with his surprising first months in power. From removing an army chief to endorsing pizza and French fries, food that was previously banned, to stepping out in public with his young fashionable wife, Kim Jong Un seems like he is on a mission to differentiate his regime from that of his father’s before him. As reporter Blaine Harden wrote in Foreign Policy, the new images coming out of North Korea show a friendlier softer dictator, despite the fact that North Korea remains uniquely oppressive.
BLAINE HARDEN: Well, I think the most significant difference is that Kim Jong Un is on parade with his young wife. His father, Kim Jong il, although he married entertainment figures, he never appeared in public with them. Indeed, he never spoke in public at all. His son is taking a different approach. He’s out talking on TV a lot and he’s showing off this young woman who he apparently married and she’s just 23 years old to his 28 or 29.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But she doesn’t look like a bimbo. She looks smart, she’s dressed in a way that’s almost business attire.
BLAINE HARDEN: She looks like a young executive at Samsung in Seoul, which is a look that North Korean woman just, in the past, have never presented in public. They’re often dressed as peasants or else they’re painted up to be entertainers. They look slightly bizarre. But she looks like a normal professional woman with a good haircut, with very bright eyes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s a video of him visiting a kindergarten where he brings his wife. You say that the music is like Wagner on acid.
WOMAN: [SPEAKING IN KOREAN]
[MUSIC/UP AND UNDER]
BLAINE HARDEN: The little clips that one sees internationally is quite a bit different than the effect of watching a 30-minute tour of this kindergarten, which looks like Oz. The audience who watches it in North Korea gets a different impression. It’s part of the cult of Kim image building, but to the outside, because he’s with his wife, it presents a softer, more huggable image, and it’s almost as if they seem to be trying to imitate Kate Middleton and Prince William’s story.
But there’s no indication so far that there’s real substance behind this change in imaging. In fact, one of the things that’s happened under him is there’s been a sealing of the border with China. The border with China has been a semi-permeable membrane for the past 15 years since the famine of the late nineties, and it’s allowed an enormous amount of information, of food, warm clothing to come into the country. And if that border remains sealed North Koreans are going to be in a much worse situation than they were under his father.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: His father, despite all this talk of Dear Leader, was not a popular man, but his father was – Kim ll Sung, and you suggest that Kim Jong Un is trying to model himself after his grandfather.
BLAINE HARDEN: His grandfather was genuinely popular. He was genuinely mourned when he died. So the grandson, Kim Jong Un cuts his hair like his grandfather, he dresses like him. There were reports in the South Korean media that he had plastic surgery to make his face look like that of his grandfather.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you believe that?
BLAINE HARDEN: It’s quite possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that all of this fuzzy image-making is having an impact on the outside world?
BLAINE HARDEN: North Korea is a master of distraction in its image-making. This latest phase of it is huggable, soft and interesting to people who are interested in, in royal couples. But they have done other image-making, belligerent image-making. A nuclear state. What all this does is it keeps the world focused on either the belligerence or the strangeness of the leadership. But the very essence of North Korea has been overwhelmed by the other image-making. In any discussion of North Korea the first topic should be “have you stopped tormenting your people and are they able to eat?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m reminded of the coverage of Andropov during his brief reign in the Soviet Union. You know, he liked jazz, he liked Western food. This all seemed to soften him, but he was no softy.
BLAINE HARDEN: No. Although it’s worth noting that while these soft and wonderful, huggable images are coming across to the rest of the world, North Korea is having a very hard time of it. There are torrential floods right now which follow a severe drought. Between one- and two-thirds of the people are malnourished. It is a miserable place to live. If there’s no change, if the situation remains the same, the contradictions become so much greater and his chances of ending his reign with a bullet in his head are greater. Over time, he and maybe his very intelligent wife are gonna figure that out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re judging her intelligence on the basis of her clothes, aren’t you, Blaine?
BLAINE HARDEN: I’m judging her intelligence based on –
- the information available, which is a few pictures. And this is the kind of analysis that exists for North Korean. No one really knows what they’re up to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Blaine, thank you very much.
BLAINE HARDEN: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Blaine Harden is a reporter for PBS Frontline and the author of the book Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.