For those searching for signs of reform in North Korea, Kim Jong Un has been a godsend. Women on North Korean state TV wore high heels and miniskirts while he sat in the audience. Disney characters, the cultural export of a country North Korea has long demonized, danced onstage. The not-yet-30-year-old Kim, since taking over from father in December 2011, frolicked with school children and was photographed on a rollercoaster with a British diplomat, signaling a level of international openness never seen under the stern Kim Jong Il. He found a pretty wife, Ri Sol Ju, whom the New York Times equated with Britain's Kate Middleton. In a sign of changing times, the new first lady has even been photographed with her husband -- significant because Kim Jong Il was never seen with his spouse -- sporting a Christian Dior purse worth more than the annual wage of a North Korean worker.
Such inane details, combined with the young Kim's years of Swiss schooling where he wolfed down pizza and idolized NBA stars, have caused optimists to declare once again that North Korea is ready to open up to the outside world. This spring, I participated in unofficial meetings in New York where North Korean officials met with executives from Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken to discuss opening branches in North Korea.
Rumors of a new economic policy being hatched in Pyongyang only fuel speculation that junior Kim is serious about change. Similar predictions were made in 1994 when Kim Jong Il, then a sprightly 52, took over after his 82-year-old father Kim Il Sung died. Needless to say, the reforms never happened. But apparently, believers in the irresistibility of Disney, Dior, and Coke have short memories and tall hopes of a China-type economic modernization coming to North Korea.
Let me be blunt: The North Korean regime will not change because Little Kim studied in Switzerland, likes Mickey Mouse, and has a hot wife. If anything, another crisis could be looming: The death of Kim Jong Il and the politics of an unstable leadership transition, a new "get-tough" attitude in Seoul, and U.S. and South Korean electoral cycles constitute a unique confluence of escalation that has not been seen on the peninsula since the 1990s. This could spell another nuclear crisis with North Korea, or even worse, military hostilities that could threaten the peace and prosperity of the region.
The Obama administration stopped trying to engage Pyongyang after its April 2012 missile launch, which North Korea announced just 16 days after a food-for-nuclear-and-missile-freeze deal with the United States. Stung by the launch, the Obama administration immediately called off the deal and gave up on its last chance to get IAEA inspectors into North Korea's nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. The launch, which North Korea claimed was for a weather satellite but tested ballistic missile technology banned by the U.N. Security Council, exploded an embarrassing 81 seconds after liftoff.
The spectacular failure of Kim's first major public act almost ensures that another provocation is in the offing. He lacks the revolutionary credentials his grandfather earned as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese. Unlike his father, he does not have a decade of training and preparation for the job. Without serving a day of military service, in September 2010 the junior Kim was made a four-star general and foisted to the top of the power structure at the age of 26 or 27. Even for North Koreans, who expect their leaders to start young so that they can rule for decades, this is a stretch. So Kim must prove himself -- be it through another missile launch, a nuclear test, or a military provocation against Seoul.