North Korea is really complicated and, owing to its secrecy and near-total opacity to outsiders, really difficult to understand. So it's nearly impossible to explain the country's ongoing succession drama, in which dictator Kim Jong-Il has promoted a number of family members to ludicrously high positions in an apparent bid to keep his family in power should he die suddenly, as many observers expect he could any day. Simply speaking, even the most respected and authoritative experts aren't doing much more than speculating.
Foreign Policy's Dan Drezner, a foreign affairs expert and professor legitimate enough to concede what he doesn't know, freely admits, "After reading all of this, I can now state with confidence the following: no one knows exactly what the f*** is going to happen in North Korea once Kim Jong Il dies. There are plausible stories that can be spun any which way. But no one really knows." All we can really say for sure, Drezner sighs, is: "Kim Jong Il's family got some promotions" and "This was a Very Big Deal." So Drezner turns to one of the world's great experts in everything: science fiction author Douglas Adams, whose The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books have been cherished by generations of fans. Drezner picks out a quote from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the second book in the series, which he says explains how academics and "experts" approach the North Korean puzzle:
It is a curious fact, and one to which no one knows quite how much importance to attach, that something like 85% of all known worlds in the Galaxy, be they primitive or highly advanced, have invented a drink called jynnan tonnyx, or gee-N'N-T'N-ix, or jinond-o-nicks, or any one of a thousand or more variations on the same phonetic theme. The drinks themselves are not the same, and vary between the Sivolvian 'chinanto/mnigs' which is ordinary water served at slightly above room temperature, and the Gagrakackan 'tzjin-anthony-ks' which kill cows at a hundred paces; and in fact the one common factor between all of them, beyond the fact that the names sound the same, is that they were all invented and named before the worlds concerned made contact with any other worlds.
What can be made of this fact? It exists in total isolation. As far as any theory of structural linguistics is concerned it is right off the graph, and yet it persists. Old structural linguists get very angry when young structural linguists go on about it. Young structural linguists get deeply excited about it and stay up late at night convinced that they are very close to something of profound importance, and end up becoming old structural linguists before their time, getting very angry with the young ones. Structural linguistics is a bitterly divided and unhappy discipline, and a large number of its practitioners spend too many nights drowning their problems in Ouisghian Zodahs.
"As someone in transition from being a young structural IR theorist to an old one," Drezner sighs, "I've now seen enough to recognize when certain patterns begin to recur."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.