The North Korean regime appears to have turned its greatest weaknesses -- poverty, corruption, and insecurity -- into pillars of stability.
Kim Jong Un, left, speaks in Pyongyang. Right, a painting of grandfather Kim Il Sung. (Reuters, Wikimedia)
The world has been predicting North Korea's imminent downfall for a generation now, and why shouldn't we? The Stalinist, totalitarian nations of the world have collapsed so consistently and in such quick succession that this one, perhaps the faintest star in the Soviet constellation, seemed sure to follow. If the Soviet Union, for all its weapons and natural resources, couldn't keep back the tides of history, how could impoverished little North Korea? If populous, powerful China felt it had no choice but to reform and open, wouldn't its angry neighbor have to do the same?
We may have some hints to North Korea's baffling survival in a new report from the International Crisis Group, which concludes, based partly on "interviews and observations" from within the country, that new leader Kim Jong Un "could be in power for decades." They predict that "reform prospects are dim" and Kim could have "a growing nuclear arsenal." It's entirely possible that they'll be just as wrong as were the analysts insisting Kim Jong Il wouldn't survive the 1990s -- North Korea analysis is necessarily reliant on conjecture, both because the society is so closed and because its system has so few analogues in history -- but, if nothing else, they offer compelling theories for how the Kim family has kept such tight control for six astounding, horrifying decades.
If there is any common theme to the Crisis Group's findings, it's that the Kim regime has managed to turn North Korea's many weaknesses -- poverty, hunger, insecurity, corruption -- into not just strengths, but pillars of stability. Here, extrapolated from the report, is a sort of brief handguide to how North Korea has stayed so remarkably stable for so long, and might still for "decades" to come.
Nothing To Lose: The world has already taken so many things away from North Korea, it doesn't really have many deterrents left, short of all-out war. The North Korean military has made clear that it will over-react to any military provocations, making any strike extremely risky as it could slide into full-on -- and potentially nuclear -- war. The U.S. occasionally boosts food aid, giving North Korea an incentive to cooperate, but the regime rarely holds to its side of the deal and doesn't seem too bothered when the food aid is taken away. "Pyongyang might feel there is little risk in testing more long-range missiles or another nuclear device," the Crisis Group report warned. "If it is strongly motivated to do so, there is probably little that could dissuade it."
The Craziest Kid on the Block: As North Korea gets poorer and the rest of the world gets richer, "the conventional military balance ... continues to deteriorate for the North." South Korea is more closely cooperating with the U.S. and even Japan. The North and South are just no longer even matched, with the latter growing stronger all the time. So North Korea is using its poverty and isolation as its weapons, striking out at the world -- sometimes apparently at random -- and building up its "asymmetric capabilities" to keep its borders as militarized and tense as possible. This keeps North Koreans in, the world out, and Pyongyang's enemies focused on preventing another deadly attack.
Overlap, Inefficiency, Infighting: North Korean society has been so "atomized" that it functionally does not exist outside of state institutions. Food is so scarce, and the risk of finding yourself in the sprawling gulags so high, that individual North Koreans depend on the state to get by, but that means joining the system. The regime keeps people busy with a vast, nonsensical bureaucracy, with redundant agencies or offices pitted against one another. Want to hold onto your family's food rations? Try to do a better job than the guy across the street who has your same responsibilities, or better yet see if you can get him suspected of ideological impurity. Security agencies and party organs -- the offices most likely to accumulate power, push for reform, or challenge the Kims -- are designed to "monitor" one another. The "state security ministry" looks for "political crimes," the "defense security command" constantly investigates the military, and the "general political bureau" indoctrinates the officers while judging civilian leaders for crimes real, suspected, or imagined. The higher you climb, the more eyes are watching you, and the more people will have something to gain by your fall.
The Prisoners Are Also the Guards: Everyone is required to join a "loyalty"-enforcing "mass organization," such as the "Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League." Because North Korean society is designed to be so fiercely competitive, and because that competition doesn't mean doing a better job so much as sniffing out "ideological impurity" both at work and at home, you've got to be willing to turn against your neighbor just to survive. Any North Korean who wants a good chance at feeding their family must join the state's efforts "maintain ideological discipline" and "provide another surveillance mechanism for state security." About one out of every 25 married women, for example, are recruited into the inminban "neighborhood units" that are expected to openly spy on their friends and family and to sniff out enemies, whether they exist or not; failure to produce makes you suspect. Everyone is an informer and an enforcer, doing Kim Jong Un's work for him.
Waiting for Doom: All of those analysts can't be completely wrong in seeing North Korea's stability as tenuous, even doomed. And that's the message that North Korea itself hammers home to its people, warning them that a world war or another famine could be right around the corner. Kim Jong Un can't fix his "failed state," with its "food insecurity," "widespread economic problems," and war footing against a world that would love to see him fall. So he uses them for his advantage. "The atmosphere of fear and chronic insecurity in which the [state] media constantly warns that war could break out at any moment" has North Koreans too exhausted and too worried about surviving these omnipresent threats to come together and ask if there might be a better way.
But There Is One Major Weakness in the North Korean System: "Uncontrolled information inflows are deeply subversive and pose a long-term threat to regime survival," the Crisis Group report notes. "84 percent of defectors, refugees, and travelers said they received unsanctioned information by word of mouth." The more than North Koreans learn of the outside world's comparatively astonishing wealth and freedom, the less interested they seem to be in participating in the North Korean system. The Kim regime seems to understand the enormous threat this poses. In 2011, when revolution broke out in Libya, 200 North Korean workers there were outright banned from ever coming home. "Information is beginning to seep into North Korean society, but it probably will take considerable time before inflows might cause regime change or transformation."
In the meantime, the more that Kim Jong Un can keep his people poor, terrified, and desperately infighting for their basic survival; the more he can keep his borders sealed by escalating military tensions along the borders; the less information will creep in and the longer, according to the Crisis Group's analysis, he is likely to hang on.
Meet the Bernie Sanders supporters who say they won’t switch allegiances, no matter what happens in the general election.
Loyal fans of Bernie Sanders have a difficult decision to make. If Hillary Clinton faces off against Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, legions of Sanders supporters will have to decide whether to switch allegiances or stand by Bernie until the bitter end.
At least some supporters of the Vermont senator insist they won’t vote for Clinton, no matter what. Many view the former secretary of state with her deep ties to the Democratic establishment as the polar opposite of Sanders and his rallying cry of political revolution. Throwing their weight behind her White House bid would feel like a betrayal of everything they believe.
These voters express unwavering dedication to Sanders on social media, deploying hashtags like NeverClinton and NeverHillary, and circulating petitions like www.wontvotehillary.com, which asks visitors to promise “under no circumstances will I vote for Hillary Clinton.” It’s garnered more than 56,500 signatures so far. Many feel alienated by the Democratic Party. They may want unity, but not if it means a stamp of approval for a political status quo they believe is fundamentally flawed and needs to be fixed.
There’s no escaping the pressure that U.S. inequality exerts on parents to make sure their kids succeed.
More than a half-century ago, Betty Friedan set out to call attention to “the problem that has no name,” by which she meant the dissatisfaction of millions of American housewives.
Today, many are suffering from another problem that has no name, and it’s manifested in the bleak financial situations of millions of middle-class—and even upper-middle-class—American households.
Poverty doesn’t describe the situation of middle-class Americans, who by definition earn decent incomes and live in relative material comfort. Yet they are in financial distress. For people earning between $40,000 and $100,000 (i.e. not the very poorest), 44 percent said they could not come up with $400 in an emergency (either with cash or with a credit card whose bill they could pay off within a month). Even more astonishing, 27 percent of those making more than $100,000 also could not. This is not poverty. So what is it?
Heidi Cruz got an elbow to the face—will Melania Trump get much more?
Ted Cruz stood on stage Tuesday evening and announced to the world that he would be suspending his campaign for the presidency of the United States. Just weeks earlier, the soon-to-be-former candidate had nearly convinced the Republican establishment that, contrary to both inclination and history, he might be its savior. His exit would effectively hand the nomination to a man the senator himself had called a “sniveling coward,” a “pathological liar,” “an arrogant buffoon,” and “Biff Tannen” (a Back to the Future reference that no doubt took some serious consideration).
In this particular moment of crisis and reconciliation, Heidi Cruz stood at her husband’s side, ready to meet his embrace as he turned from the lectern and (symbolically, at least) away from a party that had very nearly been his to lead. They embraced for eight seconds—Cruz’s face obscured from the cameras, an intimate moment between two partners.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
David Clarke, the Trump-loving, pro-mass-incarceration, Fox News favorite, is challenging criminal-justice reform—and stereotypes.
Milwaukee Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr.’s podcast, The People’s Sheriff, begins with a slide-guitar and a boot-stomp beat before segueing into the rich baritone of the sheriff himself. Over the next 40 minutes, Clarke holds forth on the topics of the day: Planned Parenthood is “what I call ‘Planned Genocide.’” Public schools are so dangerous “there should be a body camera on every teacher.” Higher education has become “a racketeering ring.” The sheriff is also a big fan of presidential candidate Donald Trump: “He gets us. He understands us.”
Clarke, an African American law-enforcement leader who favors cowboy hats and often appears atop a horse, fights crime in Milwaukee, the U.S. city that has been called “the worst place” for African Americans to live. He has become a fixture of conservative media. Glenn Beck presents the sheriff’s podcast on his multimedia juggernaut, The Blaze, and he is a frequent guest on Fox News. Clarke is also popular on Twitter, where he recently tweeted to his 127,000 followers that the young activists of the Black Lives Matter movement—he calls it “Black Lies Matter”—will eventually “join forces with ISIS.” He made sure to note, “You heard it first here.”
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
A long love letter to the creator of the world’s greatest nature documentaries, on the eve of his 90th birthday.
This Sunday, Sir David Attenborough, naturalist, maker of wildlife documentaries, snuggler of gorillas, wielder of That Voice, keeper of the blue shirt, and Most Trusted Man in Britain, turns 90. To mark the occasion, and celebrate his unbeatable oeuvre, I re-watched all 79 episodes of his Life Collection, and ranked them from worst to best—or, really, from least great to greatest.
Recent series like Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and Life are not represented here. Although many bill them as “Attenborough shows,” he only narrated them (and was over-dubbed by movie stars in the US). No, this list focuses on the big series that he himself wrote and presented, the ones that are most marbled with his influence, the ones that feature his beaming face along with his velvet voice. There are nine, starting with Life on Earth in 1979 and going up to Life in Cold Blood in 2008.
With a fast reversal on the minimum wage, the de-facto Republican nominee shows why Hillary Clinton is attacking his character more than his policies.
It took Donald Trump less than a day as the presumptive Republican nominee to reverse himself on a major economic-policy issue.
Don’t pretend to be surprised.
In an interview Wednesday with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Trump said he was “looking” at a possible increase in the federal minimum wage, which has stood at $7.25 an hour for nearly seven years. “I’m open to doing something with it because I don’t like that,” Trump said. This from a man who said during a November GOP debate that wages were “too high” and that he was “sorry to say it, but we have to leave [the federal floor] where it is.”
Was Trump’s flip-flop the start of a carefully-planned and much-anticipated pivot to the general election? Is he suddenly trying to appeal to Democrats now that he has dispatched each of the small-government conservative ideologues who ran in the Republican primary? Or did he simply forget what his position was on the minimum wage?