SEOUL — When Kim Jong Un took over North Korea last year, some saw the possibility of change in a reclusive country that has been a thorn in the side of the world, hoping he might shift away from the policies of confrontation pursued by his father and grandfather.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went as far as urging Kim at one point to take advantage of the opportunity, saying: “This young man … could go down in history as a transformative leader.”
However, while Kim has made some high-profile breaks with the past during his first 12 months in power, the North’s recently announced plan to launch a satellite in the coming days appears to cement what U.S. officials have suspected all along — that the younger Kim’s regime is essentially just a new generation version of the same provocative and iron-handed rule of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
The North announced that, sometime between Dec. 10 and 22, it would attempt to launch a satellite, a move U.S. officials believe is simply a cover to test missile capabilities. North Korea made a similar launch attempt in April that failed.
Washington, which made it clear months ago that it has tired of waiting for signs of positive change, has condemned the planned launch.
Earlier this year, the U.S. agreed with Japan to increase its missile-defense capabilities in the Pacific, reportedly in large part because of the threat North Korea continues to pose to the region.
Similarly, North Korea watchers dismiss many of the changes Kim has made thus far as an effort to pacify possible public dissent, not in changing the country’s dealings with the outside world.
“Kim is showing he is open to, and forward-looking, when it comes to the economy and sociocultural issues,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korean studies professor at the Sejong Campus of Korea University.
But, he added, “Since Kim Jong Un’s regime is following Kim Jong Il’s military-first policies — and becoming a nuclear power as the core way of preserving his regime — the North’s existing military and security policies will not change for the time being.”
Even North Korea itself has mocked suggestions that Kim is different from his predecessors, who continue to be treated with godlike reverence by the populace.
“To expect ‘policy change’ and ‘reform and opening’ from (North Korea) is nothing but a foolish and silly dream, just like wanting the sun to rise in the west,” the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a July statement quoted by the country’s official Korean Central News Agency.
“This is the height of ignorance,” the commentary said.
Experts on North Korea credit the years Kim spent in Switzerland during his youth for some of the changes they have seen since he took over the country in the wake of his father’s December 2011 death.
Kim has paid unprecedented attention in his public comments to economic development and improving the lives of ordinary North Koreans, observers say.
He has been publicly critical of bureaucrats, they point out, and the quality of some government services.
He is often pictured in the company of his wife — a strange sight in a country where virtually the entire public focus has been on the leaders.
And the government news agency has been quick to challenge criticisms from the outside world and acknowledge failings, things that were largely ignored or lied about in years past.
For example, when the April satellite launch failed, North Korea immediately admitted it rather than pretend it had been a success.
Ambassador Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, said in a June speech that the public admission about the unsuccessful launch was a nod from the regime to the fact that it can no longer keep information from the outside world from getting into the cloistered country.
“I think the difference reflects the effect of information getting into North Korea and the constraints that places on the government and what it can say to its own people,” he said.
Critics point out that North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons, test missiles, talk tough and pose a threat to peace in the Pacific.
For his part, Kim has assumed a laundry list of titles related to the military, including supreme commander of the army, first chairman of the National Defense Commission and chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Baek Seung Joo, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, said observers should not be fooled into thinking Kim’s different leadership style will translate into a change in the focus of his regime.
“A European-style political culture may be incorporated into the country’s leadership system without necessarily affecting its essence,” Baek said.
Yoo Chan-yul, a political science and diplomacy professor at Duksung Women’s University in Seoul, said this year’s first attempted satellite launch spoke louder than any photo opportunities showing a smiling Kim alongside his attractive wife.
“North Korea is saying, ‘This is just the way we do things. We do it our way,’” he said. “The North’s current external policies reveal very little difference between Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il.”