Is North Korea Changing — Or Resisting Change?

In a photo released by North Korea's Korean Central Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (third from right) and other senior leaders attend a memorial service in Pyongyang, March 25, marking the 100th day since the death of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il. North Korea has been sending the world mixed messages since the death of the elder Kim.


ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: There has been fierce international condemnation around the world for North Korea's planned rocket launch this month. The North's plans have apparently destroyed a deal between the U.S. and Pyongyang over food aid. And they are confusing world leaders about who's calling the shots in the North.

NPR's Mike Shuster sent this report from Seoul.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: No state exists without conflict, and periods of change often bring acute conflicts. So even though things look calm on the surface in North Korea, that's probably not the case, says Seong-ho Sheen, professor of international studies at Seoul National University.

SEONG-HO SHEEN: Any totalitarian regime, if history is any guide, cannot last forever. I think North Korea cannot really avoid the fate of history. At one point, it also has to change.

SHUSTER: 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.

BONG-GEUN JUN: Now it's a kind of a testing moment that whether really you can talk to North Korea's young leader, or maybe we have to wait for some time.

SHUSTER: In February, North Korea said it would freeze its uranium enrichment and its missile tests, and let international inspectors back in to keep track. Almost immediately, North Korea announced it's planning a rocket launch in mid-April, an action nearly the whole world is condemning.

Sign of a split in the new leadership? Maybe, but more likely, says Professor Jun, the North wants to send both messages.

JUN: 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.

SHUSTER: Last week, President Obama stepped into this diplomatic hall of mirrors, directly addressing the leaders in Pyongyang. The president said: No more provocations. Bad behavior would no longer be rewarded. At the same time, he announced the U.S. has no hostile intent toward North Korea, something of a mixed message from the American side, says Professor Sheen.

SHEEN: He was trying to send, I think, both message. Negative on the North Korean brinksmanship or deception, but very positive for any kind of effort for moderate behavior for us, yet at the same time, eventually the reform effort.

SHUSTER: Another piece of the puzzle - the role of China. Frequently, the U.S. has appealed to China to prevail upon North Korea to stop its bad behavior. Repeatedly, the Chinese resists American pressure.

Last week, China's president, Hu Jintao, was also in Seoul and he very publicly expressed displeasure with the North Korean decision to go ahead with the rocket launch. So, will China do some real arm twisting in Pyongyang? Not likely, says Professor Sheen. It might show just how little influence China really has over the North Koreans.

SHEEN: North Korea doesn't trust the Chinese completely. China doesn't like North Korean leadership very much, but simply there's a kind of common interest that binds these together so that neither one of them simply cannot break away from this bilateral relationship.

SHUSTER: One aspect of President 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 president made an impassioned appeal for reunification.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The day all Koreans yearn for will not come easily or without great sacrifice. But make no mistake, it will come and, when it does...


OBAMA: 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. The Korean people, at long last, will be whole and free.

SHUSTER: For some South Koreans, like Professor Sheen, it was something of a Ronald Reagan moment, recalling the famous words: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. Sheen called Mr. Obama a visionary.

SHEEN: He can be seen for North Korean as very provocative, but I think he still wants to provide his own vision for the future.

SHUSTER: 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 open 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.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Seoul.