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If North Korea didn't exist, all those Kremlinolgists who were made redundant at the end of the Cold War would be lost without a trail of mystic socialist smoke-signals to semi-religiously divine meaning from. But luckily it does – Hooray! – so for now at least we can keep staring deep into Kim Jong Un's pudgy, crystal-ball shaped head and continue second-guessing the obscure intentions of the eccentric, autocratic regime that built its people a world-class dolphinarium before it gave them a decent set of roads.
Yesterday Kim, now the world's youngest leader, broke the silent tradition of his reclusive father and made a New Year's speech to the people of North Korea, filling them in on his plans for a totally awesome 2013. It was the first time the country has been addressed directly by one of its autocratic czars in almost 20 years, and it seems the gesture was appreciated. The country's recent rocket launch on December 12 captured the imaginations of the global media and gave North Korean morale an interstellar boost. Despite rumours that the satellite, after making it into orbit, hasn’t been functioning, Kim still felt emboldened enough to let the metaphor of space exploration underscore his rhetoric for a year of new frontiers back here on Earth.
He even gave 2013 a long and clumsy space-themed slogan: “Let us bring about a radical turn in the building of an economic giant with the same spirit and mettle as we displayed in conquering space!” Now, not to be a party pooper or anything, but it took China two decades to turn around its backward peasant economy into the global economic powerhouse it is today, so as North Korea analyst Stephen Haggard pointed out, any talk of miraculously becoming the next Hong Kong, Singapore, or *whisper it* South Korea in just one year is little more than the excited talk of an overly enthusiastic young man whose dad gave him the keys to a clapped-out old banger of a nation before he'd even learned how to drive.
Yet despite this familiar tendency of North Korea's leaders to be big on rhetoric with little substance to back it up, enough significant events have happened in the past year to suggest perhaps the country is making a bit more of an effort to boost its economy by making highly controlled connections with the outside world. One of the biggest bits of non-nuclear news in 2012 was that German luxury hotelier Kempinsiki announced it was going to open a branch in the Korean capital, Pyongyang, presumably to house delegations of international businessmen and financiers looking to grab slices of the pie before it joins the international market at a hugely inflated cost (or am I being too optimistic?).
Meanwhile, today it was announced that Eric Schmidt, Google's Executive Chairman, is taking a trip behind the last slip of the Iron Curtain to see what the future holds for the technology-obsessed nation. In North Korea, despite not having access to the internet, there is a voracious tech and programming culture, where digital media is exchanged on highly sought after USB-sticks and the more fortunate have knock-off iPads. North Koreans really do want to connect with the outside world – when I was last there at the end of 2010, a North Korean told me, “Yes, I've heard of the internet. And Google. I think if we had it, it could save our country.”
As well as talking up the country's economic future, Kim addressed relations with the South, calling for renewed efforts to achieve peace and stability on the peninsula, and to avoid further confrontations. “An important issue is putting an end to the division of the country and achieving its reunification, removing confrontation between the north and the south,” he told his fans. Although at first glance that all sounds good and well, peace on the condition of reunification is a slightly more problematic proposition, unless the Kim dynasty and their entrenched crony elite are happy to pack their bags, move to Ecuador and let South Korea sell off the country as prime Starbucks real estate.
Thankfully, there was no chest-beating nuclear talk, and Kim's physical appearance before his people spoke to the more connected, humanistic tone he's adopted since his ascension to power. But unfortunately, North Korea still doesn't have much of the on-the-ground knowledge or expertise it needs to get itself out of the situations it's in. Despite expressing all the right sentiments, a question mark still lingers on how they'll put their plan into action. One thing's for sure though: the situation is changing slowly in the North, and you can forget a regime collapse or democratic style opening-up happening any time soon. If it does continue to cautiously open its doors to the world it will be following China – a country where despite dramatic economic growth and 600 million lifted out of poverty, an autocratic, single-party government mired in corruption still has the upper hand – as a model.
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