Apart from being home to the “reclusive” Kim Jong-il, a “rogue” country that the United States says it must build a missile shield to protect itself from, it’s also an inexhaustible source of inspiration for journalists given to painting dark and foreboding pictures of this “last outpost of the Cold War.”
But are the warming winds of reform descending upon Pyongyang, bringing with them the promise of a thaw, and after, the blossoming of “reforms” throughout North Korea?
You would think so if you read about Canada’s new diplomatic mission to one of the few remaining Communist countries, one that Ottawa hopes will persuade Pyongyang’s “reclusive” leaders to “change” their ways. By which is meant it is hoped North Korea will “reform” its command economy, reform being a word that runs through the media’s accounts of Canada’s new-found diplomatic interest in North Korea as surely as hockey scores run through the sports pages of Canadian newspapers.
Reform means to change from worse to better, though someone forgot to tell that to the governments of Russia, its former Soviet satellites, or the new reformist government of Yugoslavia, which have also reformed, or are in the process of reforming, command economies.
Come to think of it, someone forgot to tell journalists, too.
Reforms in Russia led to a shrinking economy, the collapse of real incomes, soaring unemployment, wages that go unpaid, the recrudescence of diseases associated with poverty, a falling life expectancy and a shrinking population. In a land that once prided itself on its educational accomplishments, ten million children don’t attend school. These days, the country’s sole accomplishment is to do in one generation what it took many generations to do in reverse — go from being a Second World country to a Third World country.
Newly instituted reforms of Yugoslavia’s economy — which have led to spiralling prices and wages that are worth less every month — promise to do the same. Skyrocketing fuel prices, and the lifting of subsidies on staple food items like bread and cooking oil, mean that many ordinary Yugoslav citizens struggle now with cold and hunger, where they hadn’t before — hardly an instance of change from worse to better.
“Reform,” as it’s used these days, has an decidedly Orwellian character — it means the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, as Orwell wrote in his novel 1984…and losing your job, seeing your wages shrink and scrambling to survive, is reform. In other words, for the great majority of people subjected to reforms, reform means a change from not so good, to catastrophic.
Of course, for some — Western investors and the cowboy capitalists of Russia who have profited immensely from reforms and stand to profit from Kim Jong-il’s reforms, if they’re implemented — reform does mean a change for the better, and that must be acknowledged. But calling something that benefits a minority at the expense of the majority a reform, is like calling a devastating hurricane that causes tens of millions of dollars of damage an economic boon because the innkeepers to whose inland hotels millions fled during the storm saw their profits soar.
Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.