The press, for whatever reason, has been strangely Panglossian on North Korea ever since Kim Jong-un took over as supreme leader back in December 2011. No Stalinist tyrant is he, we’ve been told time and again. In fact, he may just be a bona fide reformer!
Last July, in an article filled with gushing over Kim’s “beautiful” wife, the Associated Press reported on a “whiff of economic reform” in North Korea. A few months later, the Washington Post saw a “glimmer of reform,” based on a speech Kim gave in which he stressed the importance of economic development. Early this year, AFP filed a similar report, also based on a speech Kim delivered stressing the importance of economic strength.
Of course, these “glimmers” and “whiffs” have turned out to be chimerical. North Korea remains the same brutal, human-rights-crushing, terror-supporting Communist dictatorship that it was under Kim’s father and grandfather. Economic and political liberalization has been nonexistent. And besides, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il both frequently made statements on the importance of building a strong economy—their heir is hardly unique in this regard.
Still, the media haven’t lost hope. The latest “glimmer of reform” appears to be—drum roll please—high heels! A breathless dispatch from ABC News last week reported that several of its journalists, who were recently permitted to enter the country for a stage-managed tour, witnessed a few North Korean women wearing high-heeled shoes. The solons at ABC attributed deep meaning to this sartorial choice, exclaiming that the shoes “appear to be glimpses of a modern world in a country so determined to shut it out. One recalls neighboring communist China, whose breathtaking evolution into economic powerhouse has dominated headlines. And yes: They, too, once dressed in monochromatic clothes and shoes—the disappearance of which coincided with its (monitored) embrace of modern culture and fashion.”
Of course, this “analysis” doesn’t actually prove any causality between China’s economic opening and its embrace of modern fashion. And the ABC report is actually even weirder than that, because it seems to imply that new fashion causes economic reform. But, alas, sometimes a shoe is just a shoe: Indeed, the North Korean taste for heels simply shows that occasionally new fashion developments can occur without any attendant economic or political change.
One can expect such confusion among journalists, however, given how much mileage the hoary trope that “blue jeans brought down the Soviet Union” has gotten. (Anything to avoid giving Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher any credit, we suppose.) But it’s still strange: If the media want to read such importance into what North Koreans are wearing, shouldn’t Kim Jong-un’s predilection for Mao suits cancel out the supposed progress embodied in a pair of high-heeled shoes?