On Missiles and Depravity…

After a week of conjecture – Will they? Won’t they? Are those little satellite specks even missiles? If so, is that speck the dreaded intercontinental Taepodong? – the North Koreans apparently test fired at least six missiles over the Sea of Japan on Wednesday morning. One of those missiles was indeed a Taepodong, an intercontinental missile that threatens American soil. After weeks of international warnings not to launch the missile tests, the North Korean decision to go ahead with the launches – apparently timed to coincide with the fourth of July holiday – demonstrates just how impervious the North Korean regime remains to outside pressure.

It would seem that the only scrap of good news is that the Taepodong malfunctioned after 42 seconds of flight.

Within hours of the launches the debate was full-on about how to respond and what the event means. These are very important considerations. And there are only a host of bad choices when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Kim Jong Il’s two largest benefactors, South Korea and China, fear destabilizing the sclerotic Stalinist regime and are wary of taking any aggressive measures that could hasten such a chaotic event. But from Washington’s perspective there are a number of pressing concerns. To name but one, the Wall Street Journal reports today (subscription only link) that Pyongyang has been deepening its ties with Tehran, a relationship built upon the export of North Korean missile technology to the Iranians.

And yet, amidst the evident precariousness, it occurred to me while wading through the stream of punditry, accusation, and analysis that there may in fact be a positive consequence to North Korea’s belligerence. It has focused a fresh light of scrutiny on just how unbelievably vile and depraved the regime in Pyongyang really is. It remains one of, if not the, most repressive governments in the world. It is a state run on a cult of personality.

And I can’t think about Kim Jong Il without recalling a piece from The Atlantic that ran a few years ago. It was a translation of excerpts from a book authored under the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto. Mr. Fujimoto was a well-regarded Japanese sushi chef who, by certain twists of fate and ambition, found himself Kim Jong Il’s personal chef from 1988 until 2001. The Atlantic excerpt of Fujimoto’s memoir focuses on Kim’s infamous “Entourage of Delight” – a group of entertainers devoted to satisfying the whims of the Dear Leader.

Fujimoto writes: The women of this entourage were frequently summoned to the “Number 8 Banquet Hall” in Pyongyang to perform elegant dances. The stage of this hall was equipped with an elaborate lighting system that included footlights on the sides and even a disco mirror ball hanging from the middle of the ceiling with strobe lights. The floor was also decked out with lights that flashed from below, and floor-to-ceiling speakers pounded out music.

During a banquet one night a group of five dancers in the entertainment entourage were performing a disco dance. Suddenly Kim Jong Il ordered, “Take off your clothes!” The girls took off their clothes, but then Kim told them to take it all off. They seemed surprised and could not hide their bewilderment, but they could not object to their Dear Leader’s orders. In awkward embarrassment they stripped down and continued their performance in the nude.

After a while he turned to his cabinet staff members and instructed them, “You guys dance with them too.” And soon enough I, too, was ordered to dance. However, he cautioned us, “You’ll dance, but you won’t touch. If you touch, you’re thieves.” In other words, I think Kim Jong Il felt these girls were like his own daughters.

To read the literature on what little is known about this crazy and apparently little man – (According to the BBC: “He is said to wear platform shows and favour a bouffant hairstyle in order to appear taller than his 5 feet 3 inches.”) – is to be mezmorized by the insanity of it all. He seems a character straight out of a Bond movie (of which he is also reportedly a huge fan). This all makes for a certain amount of fun (and good reason to bestow nicknames such as “Tiny Elvis” on the Dear Leader) but the real crime is that Kim’s carousing comes on the back of his people.

Again, according to the BEEB: Aid agencies have estimated that up to two million people have died since the mid-1990s because of acute food shortages caused by natural disasters and economic mismanagement. The country relies on foreign aid to feed millions of its people.

The totalitarian state also stands accused of systematic human rights abuses. Reports of torture, public executions, slave labour, and forced abortions and infanticides in prison camps have emerged. A US-based rights group has estimated that there are up to 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea.

It is undoubtedly true that a collapsed North Korea is a fraught proposition. But it is equally true that North Korea is already a dreadfully failed state. And in the face of such epic wretchedness I find it exceedingly difficult to hope for anything else.

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