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.
New presidents often err by either trying to impose their will on Congress or being too hands-off. Trump is on course to commit both errors on his top two legislative priorities.
Mucking up an interaction with Congress is a rite of passage for every new president—usually on health care, and especially for those with limited experience in Washington.
The twin pitfalls for a new president are the same ones the great Tommy Lasorda described in his approach to baseball: “I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.” A president can try to push his vision aggressively on Congress, risking backlash from members—let’s call that the Bill Clinton approach. Alternatively, he can try to hang back and let Congress act, risking the chance that without presidential leadership, members will come up with something he doesn’t like, or even worse that they can’t pass. We’ll call that the Barack Obama approach.
The MIT economist Peter Temin argues that economic inequality results in two distinct classes. And only one of them has any power.
A lot of factors have contributed to American inequality: slavery, economic policy, technological change, the power of lobbying, globalization, and so on. In their wake, what’s left?
That’s the question at the heart of a new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, by Peter Temin, an economist from MIT. Temin argues that, following decades of growing inequality, America is now left with what is more or less a two-class system: One small, predominantly white upper class that wields a disproportionate share of money, power, and political influence and a much larger, minority-heavy (but still mostly white) lower class that is all too frequently subject to the first group’s whims.
In 1985, Neil Postman observed an America imprisoned by its own need for amusement. He was, it turns out, extremely prescient.
Earlier this month, thousands of protesters gathered at Washington’s National Mall to advocate for an assortment of causes: action against global climate change, federal funding for scientific research, a generally empirical approach to the world and its mysteries. The protesters at the March for Science, as scientists are wont to do, followed what has become one of the established formulas for such an event, holding clever signs, wearing cheeky outfits, and attempting, overall, to carnivalize their anger. “Make the Barrier Reef Great Again,” read one sign at the March. “This is my sine,” read another. “I KNEW TO WEAR THIS,” one woman had written on the poncho she wore that soggy Saturday, “BECAUSE SCIENCE PREDICTED THE RAIN.” Three protesters, sporting sensible footwear and matching Tyrannosaurus rex costumes, waved poster boards bearing messages like “Jurassick of this shit.”
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang was right that "privilege" is a problem, but not about why.
Poor Tal Fortgang. (Well, perhaps “poor” isn’t the right word.) Not long ago, the Princeton freshman’s white male privilege was known only to those in his life. Then he published an essay about this privilege in a conservative student publication, arguing that because his ancestors had struggled, he personally doesn’t benefit from unearned advantage. If he’s not privileged, no one should be asking him to check his privilege, right? After all, some of his advantage was earned; he just doesn’t happen to be the one who earned it.
Because “privilege” is clickbait, Fortgang’s piece made the rounds, culminating in the New York Times interviewing his classmates about his privilege and whether he had, in fact, checked it. The consensus is that he did not. Fortgang’s privilege has now been checked not only by his classmates and Facebook friends but by the entire Internet.
Protesters entered parliament after lawmakers elected an ethnic-Albanian politician as speaker.
Protesters entered the parliament in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia following the election of an ethnic-Albanian lawmaker as speaker. Reuters described the protesters as nationalists angered by Talat Xhaferi’s election as the country’s first ethnic-Albanian speaker.
Video from the scene showed Zoran Zaev, the leader of the Social Democrats (SDSM), and other lawmakers bleeding after a fistfight. His party allied with ethnic Albanians to elect Xhaferi.
Here’s video of what happened:
Video of masked men breaking into Macedonia's parliament. Demonstrators now occupying chamber after the opposition elected a new speaker. https://t.co/QmJ75lJARe
Macedonia declared independence following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The country was wracked by unrest in the early 2000s following an armed insurrection by ethnic Albanians, who make up about a quarter of the population. A peace agreement, brokered by NATO, ended with the government agreeing to provide more rights to the minority and ethnic Albanians saying they will abandon their goal of a separate state. But tensions have lingered since then. Macedonia hasn’t had a functioning government since 2015 when the government led by the nationalists of the VMRO-DPMNE were brought down by a wiretapping scandal. The country has been in a political stalemate since last December’s parliamentary elections. VMRO DPMNE, the governing center-right party, won 51 of the 120 seats while the SDSM won 49. The rest went to ethnic Albanian parties. President Gjorge Ivanov, who is from the VMRO DPMNE, asked Nikola Gruevski, his fellow party member and outgoing prime minister, to form a new government, but Gruevski was unable to secure the 61 lawmakers needed to do so. The ethnic Albanian parties instead allied themselves with the SDSM.
The author of a new book explains the science behind the cringeworthy feeling—and how to overcome it.
It’s when a fist bump unwittingly meets a high-five. It’s when Ben Carson tries, unsuccessfully, to walk onto a stage. It’s trying to introduce an acquaintance to someone else at a party and then realizing you don’t actually remember their name. It’s awkward, and like so many other things, you know it when you see it.
We all experience awkwardness, of course, but some people seem chronically susceptible to it. In his new book, the appropriately titled Awkward, the writer and psychologist Ty Tashiro explores why certain people seem more prone to these cringe-inducing moments, and what they can do about it. I recently interviewed Tashiro; an edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Olga Khazan: Do you consider yourself awkward? What are some of the awkward things you do or used to do?
Cases of brain-infecting amoebae underscore the importance of purifying water before you pour it into your sinuses.
Allergy season is upon us once more, and for many allergy sufferers, that means it’s time to pull two crucial items to the front of the medicine cabinet: 24-hour non-drowsy loratadine, and a neti pot—a teapot-like device used to flush the nasal passages with saline in order to clear allergens and soothe sinus pressure. (It can be seen in action in this very popular gif.) The constant mockery of my loved ones doesn’t prevent me from using a neti pot to ease my congestion. It’s too effective to give up for the sake of pride. But I have also used my neti pot with considerable apprehension since 2011.
That year, a 20-year-old man from Louisiana died of encephalitis caused by Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba commonly found in lakes and rivers in the American South—but which rarely causes infection. More unusual still was the fact that the young man hadn’t had been swimming in freshwater lakes or rivers anytime recently. Then, a few months later, a 51-year-old Louisiana woman also died of encephalitis—primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) to be exact, which is the condition caused when Naegleria fowleri infects the brain. Shortly before she passed away, her doctor learned that while she hadn’t had been swimming in freshwater either, she had recently used a neti pot. Researchers later learned that the other victim had also used a neti pot, and subsequent testing found Naegleria fowleri in both patients’ brain tissue as well as the tap water in their homes. Using a neti pot had allowed the amoeba to reach their brains.
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.