One year ago, the chubby and blubbering soon-to-be leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was seen walking alongside the hearse that carried his dead father, Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Un was young, inexperienced, unqualified, and bereft of any of the larger-than-life myths that had sustained his father's and grandfather's rules. And yet, just days later, he assumed power in the only communist dynasty in the world.
Today, the junior Kim can be seen riding high in Pyongyang. And last week, he became the first Korean to launch a domestically designed satellite into orbit on the back of a domestically designed rocket. But more broadly, some analysts see him as pushing his own version of reform. His new ways might not exactly be Gangnam style, but they are undeniably a break from the past. He promulgates high heels and miniskirts for women and commissions amusement parks and (pirated) Walt Disney productions for children. Never too busy to ride rollercoasters and frolic with school kids, the prince of Pyongyang also found time to take on a wife, Ri Sol-Ju, whom the New York Times compared to the British Duchess Kate Middleton.
Optimists look to these changes and to Kim's years of Swiss schooling -- during which he took courses on democratic governance, wolfed down pizza, and came to idolize NBA stars -- and declare that North Korea is ready for reform. This past spring, I participated in track-two meetings in New York at which North Korean officials sought out executives from Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken to discuss opening branches in Pyongyong. Rumors that the regime is hatching a new economic policy only fuel speculation that Kim is "distanc[ing] himself from the regime of his father and grandfather," as one article in The Telegraph had it. Some onlookers even predict China-like reforms in Rason (a city near the Russian border) and Hwanggumpyong Island (an island near the Chinese border) that would create the next Hong Kong or Shenzhen, where
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