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Kim Jong Un promises 'happy and civilized' North Korea

The once-mysterious well-dressed woman often seen by Kim Jong Un's side, was revealed to be his wife, Ri Sol Ju. News of the newlyweds took U.S. officials by surprise. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

BEIJING -- 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.

Mismanagement, sanctions
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 which left nearly 120 people dead and damaging some 46,000 hectares of crops.

North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un has been appointed the Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army – further consolidating his power in the reclusive country. NBC News' Ed Flanagan reports from Beijing.

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.

The BBC also reported Friday that Pyongyang had requested food aid from the United Nations in the wake of the floods.

The report said:

UN officials in Pyongyang said the need for aid was urgent after visiting flood-hit parts of the country to assess damage ... Damage to infrastructure and farmland has affected the country's already dire food shortage problem.

 

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 the ostracized state has to an ally.

Richard Engel journeys to North Korea in this latest episode of Hidden Planet. Engel witnesses a military parade, one of the state events that North Korea has come to be known for, but he also journeys through parts of the country rarely seen by American eyes. Engel goes shopping in a North Korean store, visits computer science students who have never heard of Facebook and takes a train ride through parts of the country that reveal barren fields.

Any suggestions of strain in relations were brushed aside by the young leader, who was quoted a saying to Wang: "It is the unswerving will of the North Korean (ruling) party and government to continue (his father) Comrade Kim Jong Il's teachings of constantly deepening the traditional friendship between North Korea and China across the generations."

It appears to be the highest level diplomatic meeting Kim has held since taking power over 7 months ago.

Elizabeth Dalziel / AP

From work to play, see pictures from inside the secretive country.

In a sign he may be looking to emerge from such isolation, he has dispatched his head of parliament, Kim Yong Nam, to Vietnam and Laos, the North Korean KCNA news agency reported.

Kim, in his late twenties, has sought to impose his own stamp on the top leadership of North Korea, and recently ousted Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, the country's leading military figure, who was seen as close to Kim Jong Il.

State TV: North Korea leader Kim gets married, tours amusement park

Kim Jong Un was named marshal of the army in a move that cemented his power. He already heads the Workers' Party of Korea and is First Chairman of the National Defense Commission.

When North Korea's new young leader spoke in public he surprised his own people and the world. Nothing like that had been seen or heard for years. Kim Jong Un's apparent openness was revolutionary, so too was his promise to end hunger. ITN's Angus Walker reports.

He is gearing up to experiment with agricultural and economic reforms after purging Ri Yong Ho for opposing change, a source with ties to both Pyongyang and Beijing told Reuters.

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, and Chinese leaders have long nudged Pyongyang to draw lessons from their own route to economic reform.

Analysts in Seoul said Kim was probably preparing for a package of reform measures on the economy and Wang's visit could be seen as a public show of support from China.

Richard Engel, NBC's chief foreign correspondent, shares a rare and revealing look inside the reclusive kingdom of North Korea.

"By emphasizing the importance of food and civilized living conditions, I think he wanted to request for China's support," said Yang Moo-jin, professor at University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. He said he expects Kim to unveil his reforms early next year after the scheduled government changes in China, South Korea and the United States.

But to date, Pyongyang has resisted any dramatic changes in its traditional top-down management of the economy.

China has also hosted now moribund talks among regional powers to coax North Korea into abandoning its nuclear weapons program. Xinhua reported that Kim said he was committed to "peace and stability" on the Korean peninsula, but did not mention those talks.

David Guttenfelder / AP

In this March 9, 2011 photo, a girl plays the piano inside the Changgwang Elementary School in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

Reuters contributed to this report.

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