Filed Under:

Is North Korea Changing — Or Resisting Change?

Play associated audio

Recent developments in North Korea are puzzling watchers of the "Hermit Kingdom" in both the U.S. and South Korea.

There are some signs of change within the new leadership in North Korea — and there are signs of resistance to change as well.

When he was in Seoul, South Korea, last week, President Obama said he didn't know who is calling the shots in Pyongyang, which is making it difficult to determine what's next for North Korea.

Even though things look calm on the surface, that's probably not the case, says Seong-ho Sheen, professor of international studies at Seoul National University.

"Any totalitarian regime, if history is any guide, cannot last forever," says Sheen. "I think North Korea cannot really avoid the fate of history. At one point it also has to change."

With the death of Kim Jong Il and the elevation of his son Kim Jong Un, it's natural to ponder whether one of those points might be now, says Bong-geun Jun, professor of national security at the Korean Diplomatic Academy.

"Now it's a kind of a testing moment ... whether really you can talk to North Korea's young leader or maybe we have to wait for some time," Jun says.

In February, North Korea said it would freeze its uranium enrichment and missile tests, and let international inspectors back in to keep track.

Another announcement came almost immediately: that North Korea is planning a rocket launch in mid-April, an action nearly the whole world is condemning.

Is this a sign of a split in the new leadership? Maybe. But more likely, says Jun, the North wants to send both messages.

"I think both Kim Jong Un and his leaders are making use of each other so that they can keep their system, or their state, alive," Jun says.

U.S. And China Respond

Last week, Obama stepped into this diplomatic hall of mirrors. In remarks directed at the North Korean leadership, Obama said bad behavior would no longer be rewarded.

At the same time, he announced the U.S. has no hostile intent toward North Korea. This was something of a mixed message from the American side, according to Sheen.

He was warning North Korea not to engage in brinkmanship, yet trying to encourage moderate behavior and then later some reform, Sheen says.

The role of China is another piece of the puzzle. Frequently, the U.S. has appealed to China to prevail upon North Korea to stop its provocations. Repeatedly, the Chinese resist American pressure.

Last week, Chinese President Hu Jintao was also in Seoul, and he very publicly expressed displeasure with the North Korean decision to proceed with the rocket launch.

So will China do some real arm-twisting in Pyongyang? Not likely, says Sheen. It might show just how little influence China really has over the North Koreans.

"North Korea doesn't trust the Chinese completely. China doesn't like the North Korean leadership very much," Sheen says. "But simply there's a kind of common interest that binds these together, so that neither one of them [can] break away from this bilateral relationship."

Obama's Call For Unification

One aspect of Obama's trip to Seoul last week that was almost entirely overlooked was what he said about Korean unification.

In language that recalled Germany's experience after the Berlin Wall came down, the U.S. president made an impassioned appeal.

"The day all Koreans yearn for will not come easily or without great sacrifice, but make no mistake, it will come," Obama said. "And when it does, when it does, change will unfold that once seemed impossible. And checkpoints will open, and watchtowers will stand empty, and families long separated will finally be reunited, and the Korean people at long last will be whole and free."

For some South Koreans, like Sheen, it was something of a Ronald Reagan moment, recalling the former president's famous words — "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall." Sheen calls Obama "visionary."

"He can be seen from North Korea as very provocative, but I think he still wants to provide his own vision for the future," Sheen says.

Where things stand, practically speaking, is hard to say. It's likely North Korea will go through with the rocket launch. The U.S.will counter by withholding the food aid it pledged.

But North Korea has opened contacts with the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow inspectors back to monitor a freeze of its uranium enrichment program.

That in itself might be an indication of new flexibility on the North's part, despite the current tension.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


A Love Letter To Literature: Reading Gabo In 'The Paris Review'

Gabriel Garcia Marquez died Thursday. It would be hard to overstate the importance of his novels, but author Gustavo Arellano recommends getting to know him in a different medium.

In The Land Of Razor Clams, Dinner Hides Deep Within The Sand

Clam digging satisfies that primeval urge to go out into nature and find free food. And inveterate Washington state clam diggers admit they compete to get their daily limit of 15 clams.

Are Democrats Trying To Energize The Base With The Race Card?

Top Democrats have said recently that some GOP opposition to President Obama and his agenda is based on race. It's an explosive message that might drive Democratic voters to the polls.

Should College Dropouts Be Honored By Their Alma Maters?

From a Top Gun sequel starring drones to Howard University's pick of Puff Daddy as its commencement speaker, the Barbershop guys weigh in on the week's news.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.