Wednesday, December 21, 2011

There's no crying in baseball (but there is in North Korea)

The quote from Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own came to mind watching the creepy videos of North Koreans crying hysterically at news of the death of Kim Jong Il. 

What is the deal here?

Michael Totten:
A spectrum of opinion exists in North Korea just like anywhere else. On one end is some percentage of the population that is willing to drink the Kool Aid, so to speak, because they’re more susceptible to propaganda than others or because they benefit from the system personally. There are also those who are terrified of the consequences if they resist, so they force themselves to try to believe it. Then there are those who can lie on the outside, but not on the inside. They know perfectly well that the Kim family dynasty is a horror show. A rather large number of North Koreans have escaped with their lives or died trying. Some of those have dedicated themselves to smuggling their comrades out through an underground railroad of sorts into China.

That’s the spectrum, more or less, but everyone, every single last person, goes through the motions of belief, and in the case above, grief, no matter what they feel secretly on the inside. If they don’t, they will be sent to a gulag. They are better actors than we are because they’ve been honing that skill their entire life. They practice every single day, which is probably more than can be said of our Hollywood actors.
Especially in full-bore Stalinist systems like North Korea’s, would-be dissidents feel like they’re completely alone, that no one else has any idea the emperor is naked. That’s why these regimes will mobilize massive state resources just to locate and punish a single graffiti artist. It’s critically important that everyone who hates the government feels like they’re the only people who do so.
But there are always genuine supporters. My guess is that most or all of the people in the video above are genuine supporters. They aren’t at all likely to be a random sampling of the population. The fact that they live in Pyongyang alone means they aren’t a random sample because the capital city is reserved for those deemed the most loyal.
The regime knows perfectly well that it has haters among the citizenry and would make sure that none of them, or at least precious few of them, were in front of that camera. It would be a mistake for us to watch that video and assume everyone in the country feels the way they do. It’s even possible that not all of them feel the way they appear to.
He then quotes observer Kyle Smith:
In most of the videos I’ve seen, you see a lot of crying, but few tears. Living in Pyongyang means you have a level of privilege but they have not been immune to the difficulties the nation has faced in the past (and present). Whatever they feel in their hearts, the gov’t is certain that they can get them to show grief on-demand. Just like in Bucharest in 1989, people were cheering for Ceausescu minutes before they turned against him. I think what was in their hearts was the same; what changed was an opportunity to express it. Pyongyang, too, according to dissidents, has an established underground resistance movement which has engaged in acts of defacing public monuments and putting up signs denouncing the leadership.
But then again, who knows? One thing that stands out to me is that one major dissident in Seoul in 1994 said that in spite of the horror he endured and the years he spent working against the regime after he escaped from it, he still cried when he heard that Kim Il Sung died. And he wasn’t quite sure why he did.
These regimes along with their personality cults are not haphazard. They know exactly what they are doing and the propaganda is highly tailored to really make everyone buy it.
It’s hard to say, but I think that many people probably feel anger at the regime while paradoxically feeling some sorrow at the same time. Such is how brainwashing works.
If the regime fell and South Korea took over, would Northerners be psychologically capable of integrating into a free society or would they need some sort of institutional structure to very slowly reintroduce them to the world? Also, something for the foreign-policy eggheads to ponder: Why do North Koreans behave this way when many Libyans were ecstatic to see Qaddafi go? Is it a simple matter of NK’s military being vastly more competent and therefore intimidating to the population than Libya’s was? Is it that NK, as a society, is even more cloistered than Libya, leaving North Koreans with no international yardstick to measure their own oppression by? Is it the absence of any strong tribal divisions in North Korea of the sort in Libya that gave people an identity beyond Qaddafi’s brand of nationalism? What’s the magic sinister ingredient?
Dan Miller points out some truths not apparent from the video:
Here is a video from the North Korean media of assembled denizens of Pyongyang, some in tight military-like formations, lamenting his death. Residence in that city, the capital, is carefully limited to those deemed faithful to the regime. Luxuries unavailable elsewhere are provided there.

Michael Hirsch discusses the mindset of the North Korean people:
Kim Jong Il was a real-life Dr. Evil, intent on being taken seriously and yet almost unfailingly laughed at.
Strutting and pouf-haired, a self-described connoisseur of fine wine and cigars as well as (according to North Korea’s ever-inventive media) a brilliant inventor who shot 38 under par his first time playing golf, Kim would have been outright comical had one been able to get past the fact that he brought death and untold misery to millions of people. And that he endangered many more around the world with his reckless pursuit of a nuclear bomb and other weapons. Kim, whose death at age 69 was announced by North Korean media on Sunday, was also the master of what may be the last truly totalitarian dictatorship on earth, one that is likely to continue now under his son Kim Jong Un, his apparent successor.
Even as democracy seems to flourish anew elsewhere, the bizarre, undying dynasty of death and defiance that the Kim family has overseen for 65 years is likely to be affected only marginally by the passing of Kim Jong Il. 


Paul Wolfowitz, Bush’s often-errant deputy Defense Secretary, declared in 2004 that North Korea was “teetering on the edge of economic collapse” and suggested a freeze in aid would bring political collapse as well. 
But there is a reason that hasn’t happened—and why it’s not likely to happen soon, even now.   There is, perhaps, no totalitarianism in the world that is as all-embracing as North Korea’s. Something like it hasn't existed since Stalin died (and with him a personality cult very much like that which surrounds the Kims). I have spent time in other police states, but even in some of the most vicious of them, an undercurrent of dissent ran like a subterranean stream through the back rooms of restaurants, bars and private meeting rooms. Even under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi cab drivers would glance around when pressed and spit out their hatred of the dictator. Dissidents in Myanmar, during the worst of the crackdown, would whisper their fealty to democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In Vietnam, Saigon residents would raise their eyebrows and snort at the central planners in the North. In China, after Mao's death, there was a reappraisal of his policies, and the Communist Party ultimately allowed that some elements of "Mao Zedong Thought," like the disastrous Great Leap Forward of the '50s or the Cultural Revolution of the '60s, had not been successful.
But in North Korea, long after Stalinism has become a yellowing chapter in the history books elsewhere—and despite intermittent reports of a power struggle at the top-- there is little evidence that dissent among the public exists at all, even today. The effects of the Arab Spring seem to have reached China, and possibly Russia. But there are no reports of any democracy movement in North Korea. Very few people yet seem willing to question whether the Kim family dynasty might be to blame for an economic slide that took the North from parity with South Korea, as recently as the 1960s, to one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world and the death of hundreds of thousands of people from starvation.
It is too simplistic to attribute this mindset to a mere fear of repression or self-censorship. Yes, according to State Department human-rights reports and the few defectors to make it out of North Korea, there are gulags in remote areas for the wrong-thinking. But on the whole, there seems little in the way of independent thought to censor. One foreign resident of Pyongyang, when asked on our trip in 2000 if he had ever seen any evidence of dissent--even over drinks with North Korean associates--responded: "Never. Nothing." North Korea's regime has come the closest of any society to what Orwell called, in 1984, the literal inability to conceive an unorthodox thought. If one sets aside the fact that North Korea is an economic sinkhole, and that its freedom-loving enemies are crowding in upon it from every side, it may even be called the most successful totalitarianism in modern history.
OK, I can't say that sounds encouraging.  And this who's who of the new Kim's court sounds even less so:
Kim Kyong Hui: The late leader's younger sister. She kept a low profile for decades until 2009, when she began appearing with her brother during "on-the-spot guidance" trips nationwide. Now considered a top political official who has shot up in the ranks in two years, she is expected to play a caretaker role with her nephew. Kim is said to have a fiery temperament but suffers from ill health.
Jang Song Thaek: Kim Kyong Hui's husband and a Soviet-trained technocrat who was a rising star until he was demoted in early 2004, seen as a warning from his brother-in-law against cultivating too much influence. Jang was brought back into the fold in 2006, and he has been gaining influence since then. He heads the party's administrative department, and oversees the intelligence agency.
Kim Yong Nam: President of the Presidium of North Korea's parliament, often represents the country and is considered a nominal head of state. He is a member of the party's Central Committee.
Ri Yong Ho: Vice marshal and chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army, promoted to vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission last year and a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau. Ri was close to Kim Jong Il and is said to have strong ties with Jang.
Choe Yong Rim: Promoted to premier last year. His family is said to have long-standing ties with the Kim family. His daughter, Choe Son Hui, is a department director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
These people are the survivors of a familiy with a history of palace intrigue that makes the Ptolemies look like the Waltons.  The part about Kim Jong Il's brother drowning in a swimming accident as a toddler while the then 6-year old Kim was present is intriguing indeed.

But the comment about the Ptolemies is no stretch of the truth.  The original Ptolemaic pharaoh, Ptolemy I Soter, who had been one of Alexander the Great's generals, was by all accounts very intelligent and resourceful.  But to help secure their hold on the throne, the Ptolemaic dynasty used the ancient Egyptian practice of royal incest.  The inevitable physical decline was not long in coming.  After good rulers in Ptolemy I, Ptolemy II Philadelphos and Ptolemy III Euergetes (are you noticing a pattern to these names?), the next two (Ptolemy IV Philopator and Ptolemy V Epiphanes) were murderous, incompetent thugs.  Brothers killing sisters and mothers killing sons became commonplace, with rule often being left to corrupt palace courtiers.  The worst may have been Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II.  He was so obese that he could not even walk the streets of Alexandria.  He was nicknamed "Physkon" -- "fatso."

For the record, the historical Cleopatra, Cleopatra VII Philopator, escaped such consequences because her father Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, nicknamed "Auletes" ("flute player") was actually an illegitimate son of Ptolemy IX Soter II, also called Lathyros, and a palace concubine.

While there has been no incest that we know of in the Kim dynasty, the Spearhead points out a clear physical regression:
The following pictures demonstrate a clear progression from manly alpha conqueror to effete omega descendant. One can see something of the family resemblance down the line, but Kim Jong-un, the latest scion of the Kim dynasty, is a sorry specimen compared to grandfather Kim Il-sung:

Kim Il Sung

Kim Jong Il

Kim Jong Un

The Spearhead attributes this physical decline to the corruption of power that can turn someone, in their view, "effeminate."  Becoming effeminate is not de-evolution.  And these pictures do not show increasing effeminacy, but they do show, in my opinion, a de-evolution.  In the words of Belmont Club, these pictures "appear to show a process of reverse evolution, like ape emerging from man."  In my opinion, that is very close to the truth. 

We'll close with Belmont Club again:
Given the situation, the basic scenario for North Korea is that if it goes on as before much longer the country must disintegrate. Sooner or later it will simply shake itself to pieces, leaving loose nuclear componentry everywhere.


The leading indicator will be whether or not there will be a big boom — the nuclear kind — in North Korea and who sets it off. Not exactly a hopeful start for a new year, but for those who are interested, click here for a virtual tour of North Korea. It’s not as bad as advertised. It is possibly worse.

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