Fri, Feb 02, 2001 - Page 13 News List

Pyongyang in urgent need of perestroika

History is catching up with North Korea to the point where it must now divest itself of its isolation or die

By Ronald Meinardus

In the final stages of the division of Europe, when wide parts of the continent were still ruled by communist regimes, the "German Democratic Republic" triumphantly celebrated the 40th anniversary of its foundation.

Among the prominent guests from abroad was Michail Gorbachev. The East German comrades did not at all take pleasure in what the inventor of "glasnost" and "perestroika" told them on the occasion of their birthday party: "He who comes too late, will be punished by life," said the Soviet leader, expressing for the first time in clear terms that he did not give the East German regime much of a survival chance.

Gorbachev and his supporters (the East German communists definitely did not belong to that group) believed, that by introducing reforms they could modernize and thus revitalize their sclerotic systems.

Today we know, this was an illusion.

Historians deem these efforts came too late, they were too timid. The positive steps were soon to be brushed aside by the political upheaval of the masses.

The collapse of communism in Europe came as a shock for the leaders in North Korea. Making the best out of a very difficult situation Pyongyang's ideologues proclaimed what had happened on the other side of the world was the result of aberrations from the true path of communist virtues. The regime managed to survive communicating to the world that it in fact was one of the last bastions of the true teachings.

This political rigidity has had a very high economic price: For nearly one decade North Korea's economy has shrunk. After nine years of painful contraction the country's economy expanded for the first time in 1999.

Today the situation in most parts of North Korea continues to be nightmarish: "Everything seems to have come to a standstill -- or at best -- to a crawl," said one foreign journalist after visiting the country a while ago.

The recent visit of Chairman Kim Jong-il to the People's Republic of China must be evaluated against the background of this miserable state of the economy. The main focus of the trip was to get a first-hand look of capitalism Chinese style. According to the hosts' statements, the guest from Pyongyang was highly impressed by what he saw, expressing his appreciation for Beijing's "correct" development strategy.

Speculation abounds

Kim Jong-il's visit to Shanghai has fanned speculations North Korea may follow the Chinese path of economic reform. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung was swift in explaining that North Korea was seeking to become a second China. In the past the president has never concealed his support for this eventuality, inviting the North to study the Chinese methodology of pursuing economic reform without ceding political control.

The question at the centre of many a discussion regarding the future of the Koreas is whether -- and to what extent -- North Korea is changing. Those observers who deny changes are taking place, have become a minority.

There is simply too much evidence that changes have taken place.

The regime has understood that it must -- to use a classic wording -- adapt or die. There is also general agreement, that this desire to adapt is lead by the one and only goal: to preserve the political control of those in power.

The strategic insight that changes are imperative is not a new phenomenon: far-reaching changes have taken place in the past few years, changes that may well be termed reforms, even though the regime seems to despise this term to a degree the devil dislikes holy water. Following a revision of the constitution in 1998, Pyongyang set out to restructure the moribund industrial sector. A further focus has been the restructuring of the commercial sector in light of the failure of the centrally planned rationing system: According to a report published recently in a South Korean journal "about 80 percent of daily necessities and 60 percent of food needs in North Korea are now obtained through open markets. In some areas, dependence on private markets is as high as 90 percent," writes that observer.

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