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.
What do we actually know about the candidate’s health?
Cameras rolling, Manhattan gastroenterologist Harold Bornstein was confronted last week with a letter that carried his signature. In that letter, the writer “state[d] unequivocally” that Donald Trump “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”
Donald Trump would be the oldest individual ever elected to the presidency. He sleeps little and holds angry grudges. He purports to eat KFC and girthy slabs of red meat, and his physique doesn’t suggest any inconsistency in this. His health might be fine, but a claim to anything superlative feels off.
Bornstein might have jumped on that opportunity to get out of this mess—to say that Trump had dictated the letter, and Bornstein only signed it. Or that Trump had at least suggested phrases. Because it’s not just the facts of Trump’s life that don’t add up, but the linguistics of the letter.
Hillary Clinton champions a concept the Republican Party has embraced and Donald Trump has disavowed.
Hillary Clinton is making a case for American exceptionalism. “The United States is an exceptional nation,” she said on Wednesday at the American Legion’s national convention in Cincinnati. “It’s not just that we have the greatest military, or that our economy is larger than any on Earth, it’s also the strength of our values.” Clinton added: “Our power comes with a responsibility to lead.”
The Democratic presidential nominee believes talking up her commitment to American engagement abroad will help her secure the White House. Focusing on foreign policy allows Clinton to showcase her experience as a former secretary of state and emphasize how high the stakes are in the election. Elect Trump, her campaign argues, and America hands over its nuclear codes to a man with poor judgement and a history of erratic behavior. Yet what is most remarkable about Clinton’s embrace of American exceptionalism is how it highlights the inverted politics of foreign policy in the 2016 presidential race.
The San Francisco quarterback has been attacked for refusing to stand for the Star Spangled Banner—and for daring to criticize the system in which he thrived.
It was in early childhood when W.E.B. Du Bois––scholar, activist, and black radical––first noticed The Veil that separated him from his white classmates in the mostly white town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He and his classmates were exchanging “visiting cards,” invitations to visit one another’s homes, when a white girl refused his.
“Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows,” Du Bois wrote in his acclaimed essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk. “That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads.”
In the age of the digital hermit, a psychologist explains what it means to avoid other people—and what to do about it.
People today might not actually be avoiding social interaction any more than they did in past decades, but they’re certainly more vocal about it. The rise of digital communication seems to be spawning a nation of indoor cats, all humble-bragging about how introverted they are and ordering their rides and groceries without ever talking to a human.
Sometimes reclusiveness can be a sign of something more serious, though. Social anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses, but it’s still poorly understood outside of scientific circles. The good news is that it’s highly treatable, according to Stefan G. Hofmann, the director of the Social Anxiety Program at Boston University.
I recently talked with Hofmann about how social anxiety works and what people who feel socially anxious can do about it. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Practices meant to protect marginalized communities can also ostracize those who disagree with them.
Last week, the University of Chicago’s dean of students sent a welcome letter to freshmen decrying trigger warnings and safe spaces—ways for students to be warned about and opt out of exposure to potentially challenging material. While some supported the school’s actions, arguing that these practices threaten free speech and the purpose of higher education, the note also led to widespread outrage, and understandably so. Considered in isolation, trigger warnings may seem straightforwardly good. Basic human decency means professors like myself should be aware of students’ traumatic experiences, and give them a heads up about course content—photographs of dead bodies, extended accounts of abuse, disordered eating, self-harm—that might trigger an anxiety attack and foreclose intellectual engagement. Similarly, it may seem silly to object to the creation of safe spaces on campus, where members of marginalized groups can count on meeting supportive conversation partners who empathize with their life experiences, and where they feel free to be themselves without the threat of judgment or censure.
Dean of Students John Ellison gets an A for initiative, a B-minus for execution, and extra-credit for stoking a useful debate.
When I was a heretical student at a Catholic high school deciding where to apply to college, I thrilled at the prospect of an educational institution where free inquiry would reign supreme and forceful debate would never be hemmed in by dogma.
A letter like the one that University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison sent last week to incoming first-year students––reminding them of the school’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression," and affirming that those admitted to it “are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship”––would have struck me as a glorious affirmation: that robust intellectual communities truly did exist; that I would finally be free to follow my brain; that college would be a crucible that tested the strength of all my beliefs.
The meeting between the president and the man who would be president will bring together two of the least popular men in Mexico.
A meeting in Mexico City on Wednesday will bring together two of the most unpopular men in Mexico.
On the one hand, there’s Donald Trump, widely reviled and frequently bashed in papier-mâché effigy over his derogatory comments about the country and its citizens—from the suggestion, in his campaign launch, that Mexicanimmigrants to the United States are by and large criminals and rapists, to his declaration that Mexico is an “enemy” of the United States.
On the other, there’s Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, a telegenic and glamorous politician who has nonetheless been plagued by scandals and tainted by alleged ties to organized crime, a plagiarism scandal, and deep unfavorable ratings among women. Perhaps the two men will have some things to talk about when they convene at Los Pinos, the Mexican executive residence.
Education experts offer their thoughts on how—if at all—schools should assign, grade, and use take-home assignments.
This is the third installment in our series about school in a perfect world. Read previous entries on calendars and content.
We asked prominent voices in education—from policy makers and teachers to activists and parents—to look beyond laws, politics, and funding and imagine a utopian system of learning. They went back to the drawing board—and the chalkboard—to build an educational Garden of Eden. We’re publishing their answers to one question each day this week. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Today’s assignment: The Homework. Will students have homework?
Rita Pin Ahrens, thedirector of education policy for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center
Homework is absolutely necessary for students to demonstrate that they are able to independently process and apply their learning. But who says homework has to be the same as it has been? Homework might include pre-reading in preparation for what will be covered in class that day, independent research on a student-chosen topic that complements the class curriculum, experiential learning through a volunteer activity or field trip, or visiting a website and accomplishing a task on it. The structure will be left to the teachers to determine, as best fits the learning objective, and should be graded—whether by the teacher or student. Students will be held accountable for their homework and understand that it is an integral part of the learning process.
People can get addicted to almost any product. Do manufacturers have a responsibility to stop them?
“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t see people come in with Q-tip-related injuries,” laments Jennifer Derebery, an inner-ear specialist in Los Angeles.
And yet there’s a scary warning on every box of Q-tips. It reads, “CAUTION: Do not enter ear canal. … Entering the ear canal could cause injury.” How is it that the one thing most people do with cotton swabs is also the thing manufacturers explicitly warn them not to do? It’s not just that people do damage to their ears, it’s that they keep doing damage.
Some even call it an addiction. On an online forum, Q-tip user associates ear swabbing with dependency: “How can I detox from my Q-tips addiction?” MADtv ran a classic sketch on a daughter having to hide Q-tip use from her parents like a junkie.