Helping N Korea become normal

Helping N Korea become normal
North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un is the butt of jokes in Hollywood comedy The Interview. But in his New Year’s address on TV, there were admissions of adversity in his country and he made an offer of inter-Korean reconciliation.

Thanks to one of my social media-active friends, I saw the Hollywood comedy The Interview on my desktop computer on the last day of 2014.

With the grisly scene of the young North Korean supreme leader's fiery death still fresh in my memory, I had an eerie feeling when I watched a live Kim Jong Un deliver his New Year's address on TV the following day.

Korean-American actor Randall Park's elongated face did not match the round outline of the real Mr Kim's countenance, but their voices were strangely similar, creating a mysterious effect.

One laudable thing about the movie, which I thought hardly deserved 8,000 won (S$10) if shown in cinemas in South Korea, was the discovery of a performer who could mimic the North Korean leader's piteously megalomaniac character.

The idea of using foreign TV interviewers to assassinate the existing ruler must of course be repulsive for the power group in the North, and many outsiders who might hate the top man in Pyongyang would still be reluctant to approve of a plot in which he is blown up with a tank cannon.

Yet, those who patiently follow the slapstick action for two hours will find that Mr Kim was portrayed with a more humane, sympathetic touch than other characters in the film.

So, I should admit that, probably due to The Interview, I paid a little more attention to what the young dictator in Pyongyang said to his 23 million subjects at the start of the year.

During the previous era of Kim Jong Il, the Pyongyang leadership presented its annual policy statements through the peculiar medium of a "joint editorial" carried by the three major official print media, including the party organ Rodong Sinmun.

Mr Kim Jong Un's shift of style from his father's and decision to address the state in his own voice was no doubt a part of efforts to inspire the people's loyalty to the new leader by creating an image resembling that of the "Great Leader", North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.

Experts suspect that the grandson even deliberately emulates the voice of his grandfather in public addresses, possibly with the help of electronic technology to add the late Kim's metallic vibration.

The all-capable online media instantly provided the full transcript of the Workers' Party First Secretary's 2015 address, which was half an hour long.

While our smart North Korea experts and responsible inter-Korean affairs officials were carefully comparing the 10,000-letter text with Mr Kim's two previous New Year addresses in 2013 and last year, I also spent some time doing my own analysis to detect any clues pointing to current problems in the North and how its leadership might perceive them.

New Year greetings were given first to the Great Leader, then to his late father (the Great General), the People's Army and the ordinary people.

The present ruler particularly praised the military for its role in the "construction of a socialist economic power and a civilised ('munmyeongguk') state", and even its ongoing development of the fisheries industry, in addition to the original service of guarding against external enemies.

"Struggles" by the armed forces and the people were emphasised to overcome difficulties in the main industries of agriculture, livestock and fisheries to solve the "problem of eating".

Shortages of water and electricity were revealed as Mr Kim also called for struggles to develop water-saving farming methods and conservation of energy.

Reforestation was strongly pushed to "turn the hills of the fatherland into green woodlands".

Enterprises were told to do away with the "import syndrome" and promote localisation of raw materials and facilities. These were the admissions of adversity up North.

And then Mr Kim used the last quarter of his address to make an offer of inter-Korean reconciliation in what could perhaps be the softest language used by the Pyongyang authorities towards the South in decades.

"If the South Korean authorities truly want to improve the North-South relations through dialogue… there is no reason why a highest-level conference cannot be held, when the right atmosphere and environment are prepared," he concluded.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Mr Kim's remark that 2015 could be "a great year of change to open a path to independent unification" excited officials in Seoul who had sent a message to the North late last month, calling for practical steps to ease the long-frozen relations between the two Koreas.

President Park Geun Hye and her staff are holding back from issuing a direct response, apparently planning to make a new gambit through her New Year press conference scheduled for next week.

Awaiting Seoul's reaction, the Pyongyang media has maintained an unusual lull in its anti-South propaganda.

When the year changes, people, organisations and even governments tend to think and act big, because of the sense of transition and the general mood of renewal, so resolutions and proposals are made often with less prudence and calculation than at other times.

Experts are listing many economic problems now facing Pyongyang that have forced it to make an appeasing gesture towards Seoul.

Therefore, it is likely that a new round of dialogue between the two Koreas will unfold this year, possibly involving the top leaders on both sides.

Some highly imaginative observers are predicting a cautious revival of the "Sunshine Policy" of the Kim Dae Jung era as Ms Park must seek a change in the confrontational shape of inter-Korean ties.

As if to inspire their view, Chung Jong Wook, vice-chairman of the presidential Unification Preparation Committee, said in a newspaper interview this week that "we do not want the North to remain isolated in the international community. We should offer them an air pipe to breathe… Unification by absorption is unrealistic… We do not underestimate the Kim Jong Un system, which looks fairly stable".

Yet, looking back at the start of this year, we know history has deceived us too many times, alternately with hopes and frustrations.

Whatever happens this year, we are prepared for another instance of deception after pinning hopes on the possibility of a constructive dialogue with the Pyongyang leadership.

It is the wish of many in the South to see a normal state operating in the North, not one that deserves to be ridiculed by Hollywood movie producers in a third-rate comedy.

Efforts by the South through high-level inter- Korean talks or other means should be made to help the North approach normalcy in the economy and state-level affairs.

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