North Korea’s Extreme Makeover: There’s nothing funny about life in the world’s most repressive state
With each news cycle, North Korea’s young dictator appears a bit more huggable. In late July, we learned 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 launched 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 Web. A headline from MSN Now teases “Sorry, ladies, your favorite North Korean dictator is off the market.” 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 or amused, it is worth noting that North Korea remains uniquely repressive. Indeed, after seven months under Kim Jong Un, the entire country seems to have become even more of a prison than it was under his father, Kim Jong Il, not less.