Why Kim Jong Un build aquariums as his people starve.
Trained dolphins perform in a new Pyongyang aquarium. (KCNA)
When youthful dictator Kim Jong Un spent who knows how much money building and populating a state-of-the-art dolphin aquarium, opened to great fanfare in Pyongyang this week, it would certainly seem like another moment of madness and unhinged narcissism by a regime that is singularly talented at both. And, of course, it is crazy -- North Korea is in the middle of yet another food crisis, and whatever these highly trained animals and their specialized equipment cost probably could have kept some number of North Koreans fed, or perhaps rebuilt the thousands of shoddy homes destroyed in recent flooding.
But there's an internal logic to these obviously wasteful extravagances, a method to the Kim family madness that is both crueler and shrewder than it might seem. Far from silly, these dolphins -- who will likely live better lives than most North Koreans -- are of a piece with the regime's long-running propaganda campaign that is one of the most important pillars of its against-all-odds rule.
Back in the Cold War, when the Soviet Union generously bolstered its easternmost satellite, North Korea was wealthier than South Korea. As far as North Korean propaganda is concerned, their own steep economic decline and the South's amazing rise never happened. The dozens of state-produced films that attract wide audiences every year -- movie tickets are subsidized and there's little other available entertainment -- depict South Korea as a land of poverty and crime. Many North Koreans, as Barbara Demick reported in her excellent book on the country, gratefully believe that they live in relative wealth and that poor South Koreans are desperate to join them.
The other side of this propaganda worldview means playing up North Korea's wealth. For an outsider, this seems absurd: many North Koreans live in absolute poverty, the country's infrastructure is a disaster, and the country spends much of the year in darkness. But these quality-of-life measurements are measured in relative terms; however many homes or however much electricity the country produces, many North Koreans will have no way of knowing that they have less than most of other people.
High-quality dolphinariums and amusement parks, on the other hand -- the latter of which are, by all accounts, state of the art -- are absolute signs of wealth; you have them or you don't. If Kim is trying to reinforce North Koreans' impressions of their national prosperity, building the best possible luxury destinations is probably an effective way to do it.
North Korean propaganda (the other pillar of which is a sort of race-based nationalism) is surprisingly effective at engendering "a significant degree of mass support," B.R. Myers writes in The Cleanest Race, the definitive book on the subject. It's seen as a legitimate protector of the people and of North Korean greatness against a cruel and jealous outside world. That Kim could manage such an indulgence as a lavish dolphinarium despite sanctions would seem to drive this idea home.
That support might not always last, but if there's a major threat to the Kim regime, it's not market liberalization and it's not North Korean poverty, both Myers and a recent International Crisis Group report argue, neither of which seems to have caused them much trouble. It's the slow trickle of information that South Koreans are richer and happier than the propaganda has led them to believe. "This support cannot be sustained for long, because what the masses are taught -- especially in regard to South Korean public opinion -- is coming increasingly into conflict with what [North Koreans] know to be true," Myers writes.
The regime seems to know the threat and is working to stem the inflow of unapproved information. Police, as Blaine Harden reported in his biography of an escaped work camp prisoner, have taken to randomly shutting off power in apartment blocks, then raiding homes to search for unauthorized video CDs that might be stuck in peoples' players. Still, it's difficult to see how they could keep it up forever, and the Crisis Group report notes that defectors increasingly say that they wanted to leave on finally learning of the south's relative wealth and their own poverty.
So what happens when North Koreans figure out that their supposed prosperity is a lie? The Crisis Group predicts that the Kim family can hold out for "decades," with its near-monopoly on information still intact. But Myers more darkly predicts that the regime will replace the lost legitimacy by escalating its acts of random aggression, writing, "The more the North Korean economy loses its distinctiveness vis-a-vis its counterpart to the south, the more the DPRK must demonstrate its legitimacy through military means." It's almost enough to make you wish for more dolphins in Pyongyang.
From Eve to Aristotle to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a brief history of looking at half the population and assuming the worst
The picture was striking. The military airplane. The sleeping woman. The outstretched hands. The mischievous smile. The look what I’m getting away with impishness directed at the camera.
On Thursday, Leeann Tweeden, a radio host and former model, came forward with the accusation that Senator Al Franken, of Minnesota, had kissed her against her will during a 2006 USO trip to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In a story posted to the website of Los Angeles’s KABC station, Tweeden shared her experience with Franken. She also shared that photo. “I couldn’t believe it,” she wrote. “He groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep.”
I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated.
How dare anyone grab my breasts like this and think it’s funny?
I told my husband everything that happened and showed him the picture.
I wanted to shout my story to the world with a megaphone to anyone who would listen, but even as angry as I was, I was worried about the potential backlash and damage going public might have on my career as a broadcaster.
But that was then, this is now. I’m no longer afraid.
Hillary Clinton once tweeted that “every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” What about Juanita Broaddrick?
If the ground beneath your feet feels cold, it’s because hell froze over the other day. It happened at 8:02 p.m. on Monday, when The New York Times published an op-ed called “I Believe Juanita.”
Written by Michelle Goldberg, it was a piece that, 20 years ago, likely would have inflamed the readership of the paper and scandalized its editors. Reviewing the credibility of Broaddrick’s claim, Goldberg wrote that “five witnesses said she confided in them about the assault right after it happened,” an important standard in reviewing the veracity of claims of past sex crimes.
But Goldberg’s was not a single snowflake of truth; rather it was part of an avalanche of honesty in the elite press, following a seemingly innocuous tweet by the MSNBC host Chris Hayes. “As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right’s ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is,” he wrote, “it’s also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.”
The CNN correspondent on journalism, hypocrisy, how a Twitter fave can ruin his morning, and why he has a poster of George Wallace hanging in his office
Jake Tapper sometimes wakes up angry. This may be a good thing for America.
Amid the chaos of the Donald Trump presidency, and the deep partisanship that filters through seemingly all aspects of American life in 2017, Tapper is motivated by the same forces that have animated much of his career in journalism. He can’t stand hypocrisy. He can’t stand unfairness. He can’t stop talking about it.
“I recognize that it’s probably a pain in the ass for a lot of people now,” he told The Atlantic. “But it is just who I am.”
“I’m just like, I don’t want any of this to be happening,” he added. “There are so many lies and so much indecency, and I’m not only talking about President Trump. There is just a world of it exploding—and we are, I fear, as a nation, becoming conditioned and accepting of it. And it’s horrific.”
A No. 1 bestseller by a respected physician argues that gluten and carbohydrates are at the root of Alzheimer's disease, anxiety, depression, and ADHD. What to make of the controversial theory?
“If you could make just three simple changes in your life to prevent, or even reverse, memory loss and other brain disorders, wouldn’t you?”
So asks Dr. David Perlmutter, in promotion of his PBS special Brain Change, coming soon to your regional affiliate. Three changes. Simple ones. Wouldn’t you?
The 90-minute special is a companion to Perlmutter’s blockbuster book on how gluten and carbs are destroying our brains. In November it became a New York Times number one bestseller. Since its September release, as Perlmutter told me, “It’s never not been on the bestseller list, frankly.”
“Is it still number one?” I asked. A pause over the phone as he checked. In modern interview style, we were both also on our computers.
How did Andrew Anglin go from being an antiracist vegan to the alt-right’s most vicious troll and propagandist—and how might he be stopped?
On December 16, 2016, Tanya Gersh answered her phone and heard gunshots. Startled, she hung up. Gersh, a real-estate agent who lives in Whitefish, Montana, assumed it was a prank call. But the phone rang again. More gunshots. Again, she hung up. Another call. This time, she heard a man’s voice: “This is how we can keep the Holocaust alive,” he said. “We can bury you without touching you.”
When Gersh put down the phone, her hands were shaking. She was one of only about 100 Jews in Whitefish and the surrounding Flathead Valley, and she knew there were white nationalists and “sovereign citizens” in the area. But Gersh had lived in Whitefish for more than 20 years, since just after college, and had always considered the scenic ski town an idyllic place. She didn’t even have a key to her house—she’d never felt the need to lock her door. Now that sense of security was about to be shattered.
The nation wants to eradicate all invasive mammal predators by 2050. Gene-editing technology could help—or it could trigger an ecological disaster of global proportions.
The first thing that hit me about Zealandia was the noise.
I was a 15-minute drive from the center of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, but instead of the honks of horns or the bustle of passersby, all I could hear was birdsong. It came in every flavor—resonant coos, high-pitched cheeps, and alien notes that seemed to come from otherworldly instruments.
Much of New Zealand, including national parks that supposedly epitomize the concept of wilderness, has been so denuded of birds that their melodies feel like a rare gift—a fleeting thing to make note of before it disappears. But Zealandia is a unique 225-hectare urban sanctuary into which many of the nation’s most critically endangered species have been relocated. There, they are thriving—and singing. There, their tunes are not a scarce treasure, but part of the world’s background hum. There, I realized how the nation must have sounded before it was invaded by mammals.
While the leadership of both parties views sexual misconduct as a political problem to minimize, the Republican and Democratic bases could not be farther apart.
Earlier this week, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait asked his fellow liberals to imagine that Roy Moore were a Democrat. “It’s easy to feel superior about this when opposition to grotesque treatment of teenage girls lines up neatly with your own party’s well-being,” he wrote. “If you’re a liberal, ask yourself what you would do if the circumstances were reversed.”
Thanks to Al Franken, we can now answer that question better. The details of each man’s offense differ: Moore is accused of pursuing teenager girls while he was in his 30s, and two women have accused him of sexually assaulting them when they were teenagers. Leeann Tweeden, a broadcaster for KABC in Los Angeles, said Franken kissed and groped her without her consent. Still, each party’s reaction is telling. Each is split, but in opposite ways.
The city of Melbourne assigned trees email addresses so citizens could report problems. Instead, people wrote thousands of love letters to their favorite trees.
"My dearest Ulmus," the message began.
“As I was leaving St. Mary’s College today I was struck, not by a branch, but by your radiant beauty. You must get these messages all the time. You’re such an attractive tree.”
This is an excerpt of a letter someone wrote to a green-leaf elm, one of thousands of messages in an ongoing correspondence between the people of Melbourne, Australia, and the city’s trees.
Officials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches. The “unintended but positive consequence,” as the chair of Melbourne’s Environment Portfolio, Councillor Arron Wood, put it to me in an email, was that people did more than just report issues. They also wrote directly to the trees, which have received thousands of messages—everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas.
Writing in The Atlantic this week, Kurt Andersen praises members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormons for their “sincere commitment to leading virtuous lives” while simultaneously snickering at their “extreme and strange” beliefs.
There is, of course, a long and rather ignoble tradition of simultaneously praising and mocking Mormons. In the throes of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt sent off a friendly missive to Winston Churchill and his wife. Roosevelt noted his “very high opinion of the Mormons” while also taking the opportunity to poke fun at Mormon polygamy, which had officially ended in 1890.
Second Life was supposed to be the future of the internet, but then Facebook came along. Yet many people still spend hours each day inhabiting this virtual realm. Their stories—and the world they’ve built—illuminate the promise and limitations of online life.
Gidge Uriza lives in an elegant wooden house with large glass windows overlooking a glittering creek, fringed by weeping willows and meadows twinkling with fireflies. She keeps buying new swimming pools because she keeps falling in love with different ones. The current specimen is a teal lozenge with a waterfall cascading from its archway of stones. Gidge spends her days lounging in a swimsuit on her poolside patio, or else tucked under a lacy comforter, wearing nothing but a bra and bathrobe, with a chocolate-glazed donut perched on the pile of books beside her. “Good morning girls,” she writes on her blog one day. “I’m slow moving, trying to get out of bed this morning, but when I’m surrounded by my pretty pink bed it’s difficult to get out and away like I should.”