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 program 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 program, 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 modernize 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.
An early sign that Kim would undertake governance differently than his father was the simple matter of giving a speech. While his father never let the people hear his voice, Kim Jong-un gave a televised oration in April, then another in June. Similarly, Kim has used the tradition of so-called on-site guidance visits, which put the Supreme Leader in direct contact with the North Korean people, to signal a new approach. His father's style on guidance visits was withdrawn, almost painfully awkward - as captured in the farcical website Kim Jong-il Looking At Things. The son is infinitely more at ease among his subjects. Instead of limiting himself to aloof observation, he interacts up-close with average people. Children surround him for photo-ops, soldiers throw their arms around him weeping in joy, and elderly principals affectionately interlock arms with him in traditional Korean style. He smiles jovially throughout it all, reciprocating and even initiating physical intimacy, projecting an aura of energy and enthusiasm.
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. More striking were the black miniskirts worn by the band's singers. Easily dismissed as epiphenomenal, such stylistic changes are reminiscent of the early days of China's momentous transformation in the 1970s and 1980s. Changes to the national image projected by the state media in a political system as highly stylized as North Korea's hint at underlying rethinking of governance, economics and foreign policy.
Indeed, there are signs in Kim's speeches and guidance visits that the substance is changing along with the style. In a lengthy talk given to senior party leaders in April, Kim called on officials to try new ideas and be less ideological. "Officials should work with a creative and enterprising attitude... [and] resolutely do away with the outdated ideological viewpoint and backward method and style of work." It was a distinct echo of Deng's famous December 1978 speech that launched China's reforms, in which he called on party members to be "pathbreakers who dare to think, explore new ways and generate new ideas."