April 15, 2012 was an auspicious day in North Korea. It saw the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder Kim Il-sung. North Korea is known for much spectacle and pomp and circumstance, so of course an event like this meant pulling out all the stops.
Planning for this date actually began almost two decades ago. At that time, North Korea broke ground for an audacious edifice, the Ryugyong Hotel, which looks like a giant pyramid spaceship. But shortly after it got underway, DPRK’s already fragile economy collapsed. The hotel sat untouched for about 16 years, a hulking mass of concrete and steel, until construction started on it again a couple of years ago. Now, from the exterior anyway, it looks complete. Whether it is completed on the inside, of course, remains a mystery. During its years as a moribund shell, DPRK never spoke of it. Tourists were not allowed near it. And although at 1083 feet it easily dominates the Pyongyang skyline, it was excluded from official photos. Quite a feat.
But now it stands, a shell with a completed façade, or an actual completed building, take your pick, waiting to show off the glory of the state during its founder’s century mark.
Then there’s the rocket. North Korea has attempted launches before, but this one was to be really big: a three-staged rocket that would put into orbit a new communications satellite. DPRK even took the extraordinary step of allowing foreign journalist, including <GASP> westerners, to enter the country and report on the launch. NBC Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel was among the chosen and made a report on The Rachel Maddow Show live from Pyongyang shortly after the attempted launch Friday night, US time.
Ah, but therein hangs the tale. Of course the rocket went nowhere, except the bottom of the Yellow Sea shortly after takeoff. Richard Engel reported that a government official came into the press room all excited, ready to take the journalist to some museum or another. The journalists were perplexed. Aren’t we supposed to be going to view the launch? Mr. Engel reported that their official host shrugged his shoulders and bolted from the room. The North Koreans, including the factotum assigned to the foreign press corps, hadn’t learned the fate of their rocket, but the journalist did. Their pressroom was one of the few places in the country with internet access, a bridge to the outside world. Extraordinarily, the North Korean government did eventually admit publicly that the rocket had failed.
Despite these two set backs, the country’s elite moved forward with a large spectacle on the Big Day, replete with the usual display of military prowess, including goose-stepping soldiers, tanks, and so on. The new leader, Kim Jong-un also made his debut, giving his first public speech since taking power after the sudden passing of his father, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, last December. All the leaders of North Korea have official, affectionate nicknames. Founder Kim Il Sung was Great Leader. For a while Kim Jong Un was called the Great Successor, but that name can’t last forever. I thought I recalled hearing a report that he would be known as Great Leader II; many have reported that he is being groomed to be more like his grandfather than his father. I’ve come to calling him Precious Leader.
Anyway, he gave a speech which highlighted his commitment to continue to spend a vast majority of the country’s meager GDP on the military. To prove this, a new missile was part of the parade. Some commentators wondered if it was even real or just a mock up.
North Korea really is the land of make believe, a virtual private plaything for the Kim dynasty that has run the place since its creation, and for the elites who prop them up. Despite the country’s isolation and nearly non-existent economy, the show goes on. The whole place sort of reminds me of the first clinic defense I went to many moons ago. It was in Orange County so there were many pro-lifers blocking the clinic to prevent women from accessing its doors. Nonetheless, we outnumbered them and even when it became obvious that they were not blocking anyone access to the building, a hard core group of anti-abortion activists maintained their blockade, pressing against each other and the side of the building, a human chain that did nothing but existed for its own sake.
Pyongyang is similar, a prop that exists for its own sake, and little else. The subway system breaks down frequently. The city has many well-paved roads, but few can afford cars to drive on them. Generally, only the best and brightest live in Paradise’s capital. Though apparently, even Pyongyang has slums.
The one thing that is not an illusion, and which Precious Leader failed to mention in his speech, is the horrific famine that has gripped the country for nearly two decades. President Obama’s administration made a deal recently to give food aid to the country provided it did not launch the rocket, the one that fell into the Yellow Sea. Even though the launch was a failure, it continued to show that the country was not negotiating in good faith, so the food deal is likely off.
Precious Leader, though, a healthy, corpulent young man, obviously couldn’t care less. Even though he has opened up the country in ways hitherto unheard of, he will continue to take very good care of the military at the expense of his own people, who continue to starve to death. The folks outside of Pyongyang are left to fend for themselves, a plan that has led to a humanitarian disaster.
But as I said, Precious Leader is eating just fine. Too fine, perhaps. Maybe he should be called Pudgy Leader instead.
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.