Will 'supreme leader' Kim Jong-un take a shot on North Korea's future?

The young, Western-educated Kim Jong-un may be just the fresh start that North Korea needs to open up. He has a recent model to follow – Burma, a fellow reclusive nation in Asia that's reforming.

REUTERS/Jacky Chen
A North Korean soldier stands guard in front of sacks of ore near the town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border, Dec. 28. North Korea held a funeral procession Wednesday for Kim Jong-il, making way for his son, Kim Jong-un, to run the isolated country.

A young man who enjoys basketball and studied in Switzerland is now North Korea’s “supreme leader.” Kim Jong-un was thrust into power this week even before the funeral for his late father, Kim Jong-il, was over.

His quick succession, unlike that of his father’s, gives some hope of stability that could enable him to break from the past and open up his hermitlike country.

If the Western-educated Kim does have the inclination to do just that, he need not look far for a model.

Burma, like North Korea, has long been one of Asia’s last reclusive nations that chose not to join the region’s market dynamism of recent decades. And it, too, has an impoverished people largely cut off from the world and overly dependent for trade on one giant and controlling neighbor, China.

But since 2010, the ruling military of Burma (or Myanmar) has begun to shed the country’s isolation and authoritarian ways in hopes of becoming a leader among other Southeast Asian nations and to uplift its people.

A nominally civilian government was formed in March under President Thein Sein, a former general. He gets along well with the leading pro-democracy activist, Aung San Suu Kyi. The regime has loosened controls on the press and political dissent. Elections are planned that might give Ms. Suu Kyi’s party some clout. And, most surprisingly, a giant dam project sponsored by China has been canceled.

Burma’s limited progress so far has been enough to merit an official visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first such high-level American visit in half a century.

North Korea has long wanted such recognition from Washington but tried to get it in clumsy ways, such as making nuclear threats if it didn’t get its way. The United States responded with tough economic sanctions.

Now Washington and Pyongyang may have a fresh start under the new Kim. Polls show nearly half of South Koreans expect a more open North Korea. And a South Korean delegation to this week’s funeral was warmly welcomed by the new leader.

Perhaps Kim won’t be as heartless as his father was about the fact that a quarter of his people are near starvation, according to the United Nations, or that the size of the North’s economy is one-fortieth that of the South.

Maybe he’ll be more concerned about his country’s rising dependence on trade with China – which has doubled since 2006 to encompass 80 percent of all of the North’s trade. North Korea dreams of self-reliance but it also sees China trying to extract its estimated $6 trillion supply of minerals.

He may turn out to be different enough from both his father and grandfather (Kim Il-sung) to see that the North’s past attacks on the South, such as the sinking of ships and blowing up of cabinet officials, only hardens the South’s reluctance to make big concessions.

One early sign that this Kim may be a different leader came Tuesday when he asked the South to restore agreements on business investments. Those pacts were scuttled four years ago by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Mr. Lee and President Obama need to consult soon on how to offer a welcoming hand to the young Kim. Any warming up to the North may be difficult for Mr. Obama in an election year. But pacifying the Korean Peninsula has long been a bipartisan goal of the US. One path to that goal is to encourage foreign investment in North Korea.

Hint of Kim’s intentions may come soon. The US and its allies should help him with hints of their own that a generous response awaits him, if he acts.

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