BEIJING/SEOUL - Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-Ju in a July 25 file photo. REUTERS photo
North Korea’s new young leader has told chief backer China
that his priority is to develop the decaying economy and improve living standards in one of the world’s poorest states, the latest sign that he may be planning economic reforms.
Kim Jong-un, who took over the family dictatorship last December, has presented a sharply contrasting image to his austere father. He was shown most recently in public at a Pyongyang theme park with his young wife on his arm and riding a roller coaster in the company of a man reported to be a British diplomat. “Developing the economy and improving livelihoods, so that the Korean people lead happy and civilized lives, is the goal the Korean Workers’ Party is struggling towards,” he was quoted by China’s Xinhua news agency on Friday as telling Wang Jiarui, visiting head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department and Beijing’s key interlocutor with the North.
Though the report offered no details, there has been mounting speculation that Kim’s one-party state is looking at reforms to help lift an economy dragged down by decades of mismanagement and international sanctions, and rarely far from famine.
Those economic problems have been compounded by drought and then, last month, torrential rain and widespread flooding left nearly 120 people dead, damaging some 46,000 hectares of crops.
That is equivalent to 2 percent of the North’s arable land, according to World Bank data, and the damage is certain to lower this year’s harvest, which even in good years is not enough to feed the population.
In the face of broad sanctions over its missile and nuclear weapons programs, the North has been forced to rely heavily on aid from its giant neighbor China, the nearest ostracized state has to an ally.
Experts in Beijing say their government fears that economic malaise in North Korea could give way to damaging instability and torrents of refugees across the border in China.