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Is North Korea Starting To Lighten Up?

The world’s toughest regime is starting to look a little warm and fuzzy. First, a country where leaders are normally seen reviewing military parades featuring scary-looking if perhaps not quite finished missiles, showed its new leader at a Mickey Mouse musical review. Then, China’s leaders openly pressed Pyongyang to embrace market reforms amid a bit of buzz that some economic if not political change might be in view. Now, we have a tearful reunion with the man who cooked sushi back when the young Kim was a mere teen in his father’s palace.

A remarkable story by Martin Fackler in today’s New York Times tells how a Kenji Fujimoto (not his real name) fled from North Korea after years in the Kim family’s employ, wrote a tell all book after escaping to Japan, and then lived in fear of being abducted or killed in the kind of brutal retaliation for which Pyongyang has become famous. Instead, when regime agents tracked him down in a convenience store, it was to give him an invitation to return for a visit: all is forgiven, was the message.

After some (understandable) hesitation, Fujimoto did go back and tells about his reunion with the Kims and his sense of how the North is changing… slowly.

Fujimoto is careful not to conclude that the signs he saw of a slightly easier life for the Norks (more people in restaurants. less fearful expressions on faces he passed in the street) mean much or are as true outside Pyongyang. But historically, Pyongyang has often gone out of its way to attract bad publicity, playing up its ‘bad boy’ and rogue nation status, presumably in an effort to frighten off powerful enemies like the US and Japan.

That it’s trying a charm offensive, however limited, is interesting, and could signal a new turn in its diplomacy if nothing more. Meanwhile, if anybody in Pyongyang reads Via Meadia: send us an invite, too. I haven’t been to North Korea since 1997 when as a member of the Mercy Corps International Advisory Board I visited the country to see how Mercy Corps food donations were being used. It’s far from clear whether these tentative hints amount to early signs of a thaw, but signs, however tentative, that North Korea is reaching out to show a kinder and gentler side to the world should be carefully checked.

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  • Richard Treitel

    Hmm, I can remember a similar mood when Bashar Assad succeeded to the throne of Syria. They said he wasn’t like his father. Perhaps he wasn’t, back then.

  • Sam L.

    I might believe it in 10-15 years, but not now. Trustworthy? I think not.

  • Richard White

    I’m going to venture a guess again that this post was written by an intern.

    When a single source like the New York Times is used for a post like this, one must keep in mind that the NYT’s role in American society is the same as that of Pravda in the old Soviet Union. It is the official spokesman of the Party (blue social model).

    Before accepting the literal truth of anything one finds exclusively there, one should consider, why should the Party’s house organ publish such a story, and how did they come across it?

    Since it is unlikely that the NYT has an actual source within the Nork’s kitchen, it is more likely that someone in the state department/intelligence community is the source.

    Why might such a source suggest this story? One possibility is the one posited in the blog entry – the Norks are easing up. Another is that the NK leader is a foodie at heart. At least equally likely, however, is that the Obama administration is seeking to blow some smoke to explain why they will pay some foreign aid to the Nork’s ostensibly to support the moderate faction, but more likely in response to blackmail to keep them quiet and well-behaved between now and the election.

    In screening for new interns, they should be asked: “Is the NYT daily delivered from Gaia carved on stone tablets?” Those who don’t recognize the biblical reference and answer yes probably haven’t read WRM, and may not be intellectually suitable to post under his name.

    If this was not written by an intern, we’ll just attribute it to jet lag.

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