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.
As Trump considers military options, he’s drawing unenforceable red lines.
Speaking before the UN General Assembly today, President Donald Trump announced that, unless North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, “the United States will have no choice but to totally destroy” the country. He sounded almost excited as he threatened, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
North Korea is a serious problem, and not one of Trump’s making—the last four American presidents failed to impede North Korea’s progress towards a nuclear weapon. President George H.W. Bush took unilateral action, removing U.S. nuclear weapons and reducing America’s troop levels in the region, hoping to incentivize good behavior; Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tried to negotiate restrictions; President Barack Obama mostly averted his eyes. North Korea defied them all.
Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.
J.G. is a lawyer in his early 30s. He’s a fast talker and has the lean, sinewy build of a distance runner. His choice of profession seems preordained, as he speaks in fully formed paragraphs, his thoughts organized by topic sentences. He’s also a worrier—a big one—who for years used alcohol to soothe his anxiety.
J.G. started drinking at 15, when he and a friend experimented in his parents’ liquor cabinet. He favored gin and whiskey but drank whatever he thought his parents would miss the least. He discovered beer, too, and loved the earthy, bitter taste on his tongue when he took his first cold sip.
His drinking increased through college and into law school. He could, and occasionally did, pull back, going cold turkey for weeks at a time. But nothing quieted his anxious mind like booze, and when he didn’t drink, he didn’t sleep. After four or six weeks dry, he’d be back at the liquor store.
The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is insufficient to statethe obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
The sports network’s controversial transformation is driven more by the audience and less by elites than many observers realize.
Bryan Curtis reports a striking scene in “Jemele Hill and the Fight for the Future of ESPN,” his essay on America’s premier sports network and its relationship with politics. The staff of SportsCenter, a group under fire for producing shows that are “too political,” are gathered together to decide the contents of the 6 p.m. broadcast.
“ESPN’s transformation is usually described as swapping a highlight for a debate segment,” Curtis writes. “But the changes are even more elemental. At the SC6 staff meeting, everyone had their heads buried in their social media feeds, looking for content … Twitter is now the de facto coordinating producer of ESPN’s daytime lineup. The network’s old currency was a highlight of Klay Thompson shooting a 3. The new currency — and, indeed, that day’s top offering — was a video of Thompson dancing like a dork in a Chinese nightclub. Programming ESPN is like curating your Twitter feed: find the content that everyone’s talking about and craft the right joke.”
Old French Canadian genealogy records reveal how a harmful mutation can hide from natural selection in a mother's DNA.
The first King’s Daughters—or filles du roi—arrived in New France in 1663, and 800 more would follow over the next decade. Given their numbers, they were not literally the king’s daughters of course.
They were poor and usually of common birth, but their passage and dowry were indeed paid by King Louis XIV for the purpose of empire building: These women were to marry male colonists and have many children, thus strengthening France’s hold on North America.
And so they did. The filles du roi became the founding mothers of French Canadians, for whom these women are a source of historical pride. A grand old restaurant in Montreal was named after the filles du roi. So is a roller-derby team. French Canadians can usually trace their ancestry back to one or more of these women. “French Canadian genealogy is so well documented, it’s just a piece of cake to trace any line you have,” says Susan Colby, a retired archaeologist who comes from a French Canadian family and has done some of that tracing herself.
What was it like inside the brain of an ancient prophet?
James Kugel has been spent his entire scholarly career studying the Bible, but some very basic questions about it still obsess him. What was it about the minds of ancient Israelites that allowed them to hear and see God directly—or at least, to believe that they did? Were the biblical prophets literally hearing voices and seeing visions, understanding themselves to be transmitting God’s own exact words? If so, why did such direct encounters with God become rarer over time?
In his new and final book, The Great Shift, Kugel investigates these questions through the lens of neuroscientific findings. (The approach is reminiscent of other recent books, like Kabbalah: A Neurocognitive Approach to Mystical Experiences, co-written by a neurologist and a mysticism scholar.) First, Kugel uses biblical research to show that ancient people had a “sense of self” that was fundamentally different from the one modern Westerners have—and that this enabled them to experience and interpret prophecy differently than we do. Then he uses scientific research to show that we shouldn’t assume their view was wrong. If anything, our modern Western notion of the bounded, individual self is the anomaly; most human beings throughout history conceived of the self as a porous entity open to intrusions. In fact, much of the rest of the world today still does.
The gynecological device may have an ethically fraught history, but it's hard to improve on the design.
Few women enjoy pelvic exams: the crinkly paper dress, the awkward questions, the stirrups, the vague fear that can comes with doctors’s visits of any kind (what if they find something abnormal, something bad, something cancerous?). But perhaps no piece of the pelvic exam is as reviled as the vaginal speculum—the cold, clicking, duck-billed apparatus that lifts and separates the vaginal walls so a near-stranger can peer inside.
The speculum’s history is, like many medical histories, full of dubious ethics. Versions of the speculum have been found in medical texts dating back to the Greek physician Galen in 130 A.D. and shown up in archaeological digs as far back as 79 A.D. amidst the dust of Pompeii. (The artifact from Pompeii is a bit of a nightmare: two blades that open and close via a corkscrew-like mechanism.)
Millennials may have loved the big-box chain as kids, but as parents, they’d rather shop online.
In a year of constant bad news across the retail sector, Toys “R” Us has become a little engine that couldn’t, filing for bankruptcy in a federal court in Virginia Monday night. As part of its bankruptcy plan, the company will continue to operate most of its stores through the holiday season, when the company has traditionally pulled in the most revenue.
The bankruptcy marks a new phase for a chain that has struggled to find its way online, a vulnerability for a company whose primary customers are parents. While the convenience of online shopping is a boon to most consumers, for parents it may be even more of a draw. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the vast majority of households do not have a stay-at-home parent. After a full day of work, there’s dinner to be served, baths to be drawn, and bedtime rituals to be undertaken at length. Squeezing in a trip to the store is often impossible.
The Ken Burns / Lynn Novick 18-hour series on The Vietnam War began its run on PBS on Sunday night and continues through this week and next. I felt about as familiar with that era as I could imagine—with its tensions at the time, with the journalism and literature that came out of it, with the historical assessments, with the war’s role in music and movies and others parts of pop culture and public imagination. Even so I found this a tremendously revealing series. I recommend it very highly. Please find a way to watch—now, or in the many streaming and download alternatives they are making available.
As with any attempt to grapple with a topic this vast and complex, and of such emotional and historical consequence, the Burns/Novick series is bound to be controversial. For one example of an avenue of criticism, see this review by veteran Asia-hand correspondent Jim Laurie, who was on-scene in Vietnam and Cambodia during the war.