From January 10 to 18, North Korea’s paramount leader Kim Jong Il paid a remarkably conspicuous “unofficial” visit to China. As some have already noted, Kim’s itinerary (including Wuhan, Guangzhou, Zhuhai, and Shenzhen) was reminiscent of Deng Xiaoping’s famous Southern Tour in January-February 1992 (covering Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Shanghai), which reaffirmed Beijing’s commitment to economic reform in the post-Tiananmen era. Encouraged by this historical precedent, some North Korea watchers regard Kim’s “Southern Tour” as a prelude to extensive reform in the near future. To corroborate their case, they add that Kim’s previous visits to China were followed by economic opening and reform measures. In particular, they point to Kim’s trip to Shanghai in January 2001, when he exclaimed that Shanghai had undergone a cataclysmic transformation and “changed beyond recognition”—a remark he repeated on his latest visit. Kim subsequently circulated an internal memo in October 2001, emphasizing “New Thinking” and laying out the basic principles for the July 2002 reform.3
Skeptics have a different view. To them, Kim Jong Il’s Southern Tour is largely theater for foreign consumption, designed to reinforce Chinese and South Korean perceptions that he is someone they can do business with. Skeptics believe that Kim’s trip is not a prelude to fundamental reform, but rather an attempt to draw political support and economic assistance from China and South Korea.
With the emergence of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a new poster boy for the axis of evil, there indeed would be some logic for Kim Jong Il to present himself in a positive light at this time. However, it would be a stretch to argue that his Southern Tour is basically for foreign consumption when it has been clear for some time that he has a voracious appetite for foreign news, films, and fashion trends. At a grand banquet hosted by Hu Jintao during his visit, Kim readily acknowledged that he was pleased to fulfill the “long-cherished hope to visit the southern part of the Chinese land.” That said, it would also be rather imprudent to predict that North Korea will now undertake “Chinese-style” reform, based on superficial similarities between Deng’s and Kim’s tours. Before jumping to either conclusion, it would be wise to examine closely what Kim actually said and did on his recent trip to China and draw implications for North Korea’s reform prospects.