Seductive dictator still his father's son

With each news cycle, North Korea's young dictator appears a bit more huggable. In late July, we learnt that Kim Jong-un had married Comrade Ri Sol Ju, playing a poised Kate Middleton to his porcine Prince William.

Together on television, we can watch the chosen couple smile, interact with happy children and perform a lengthy inspection of an Oz-like kindergarten.

Thanks to North Korean state media, we know, too, that Kim is flirting with something that might possibly be construed as reform. He seems to have sacked a hard-line general. He could be rolling back the privileges of the army. When a missile launch fizzled, he didn't lie about it.

In April, four months after his father died, he delivered a speech that suggested economic change could solve food shortages. He didn't dwell on details but his government seems to have dispatched 200 officials to study Chinese-style capitalism. He has reportedly sent about 40,000 technicians, seamstresses, and mechanics to work in China on industrial training visas.

For a 20-something supreme leader, Kim's feel for small-ball symbolism seems unusually shrewd - and seductive to Westerners. He allowed women to wear pants at public events. In the company of the smartly dressed woman we now know to be his wife, he enjoyed a live Mickey Mouse performance and gave a thumbs-up to a concert rendition of the theme from Rocky.

This clearly calculated narrative has performed public relations magic. Around the world, inquiring minds are eager for more images. Kim Jong-un is ''trending'' and headline writers are creating eye-candy for the internet.

We are devouring thinly sourced reports about the self-possessed ''mystery woman'' turned first lady. In the process, the world's last totalitarian state has received a soft-focus, Entertainment Tonight makeover.

Before we allow ourselves to get too hopeful, it is worth noting that North Korea remains uniquely repressive.

Indeed, after seven months under Kim, the entire country seems to have become even more of a prison than it was under his father, Kim Jong-il, not less.

As many as 20,000 North Korean troops have been sent to seal the Chinese border; defections have declined sharply.

While Kim Jong-un and his wife trot around for televised inspections of miniature golf courses, there appears to be no significant change in the infamous political labour camps that have existed in North Korea for more than half a century.

One of the principal eyewitnesses to the operation of these camps is Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have been born and raised in a camp and to escape to the West.

He has said that guards at his birthplace, Camp 14, ordered inmates to marry and to breed children, who were then taught by guards to be slaves and snitches.

Before his escape in 2005, Shin was a slave and an informer. He says he tattled on his own mother for planning an escape - a betrayal that resulted in her execution.

If Chinese-style economic reform does come to North Korea, as many outside analysts have been hopefully predicting for years, then it is possible that millions of impoverished people could find real jobs that paid real salaries. They could afford to buy food instead of eating tree bark.

We should not allow ourselves to be manipulated by images of the jowly young leader and his nicely dressed wife at amusement parks. Until he proves otherwise, Kim is still very much his father's son.

Foreign Policy

The story Seductive dictator still his father's son first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide