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.
The permissiveness of Republican leaders who acquiesce to violence, collusion, and corruption is encouraging more of the same.
In the annals of the Trump era, May 25, 2017, will deserve a special mark. Four remarkable things happened on Thursday, each of which marks a way that this presidency is changing the nation.
The first remarkable thing was President Trump’s speech at the NATO summit in Brussels. Many European governments had hoped—which is a polite way to say that they had suggested and expected—that Trump would reaffirm the American commitment to defend NATO members if attacked. This is the point of the whole enterprise after all! Here’s how it was done by President Obama at the NATO summit after the Russian invasion of Crimea:
First and foremost, we have reaffirmed the central mission of the Alliance. Article 5 enshrines our solemn duty to each other—“an armed attack against one … shall be considered an attack against them all.” This is a binding, treaty obligation. It is non-negotiable. And here in Wales, we’ve left absolutely no doubt—we will defend every Ally.
She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.
The condition has long been considered untreatable. Experts can spot it in a child as young as 3 or 4. But a new clinical approach offers hope.
This is a good day, Samantha tells me: 10 on a scale of 10. We’re sitting in a conference room at the San Marcos Treatment Center, just south of Austin, Texas, a space that has witnessed countless difficult conversations between troubled children, their worried parents, and clinical therapists. But today promises unalloyed joy. Samantha’s mother is visiting from Idaho, as she does every six weeks, which means lunch off campus and an excursion to Target. The girl needs supplies: new jeans, yoga pants, nail polish.
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At 11, Samantha is just over 5 feet tall and has wavy black hair and a steady gaze. She flashes a smile when I ask about her favorite subject (history), and grimaces when I ask about her least favorite (math). She seems poised and cheerful, a normal preteen. But when we steer into uncomfortable territory—the events that led her to this juvenile-treatment facility nearly 2,000 miles from her family—Samantha hesitates and looks down at her hands. “I wanted the whole world to myself,” she says. “So I made a whole entire book about how to hurt people.”
Maine attached work requirements and time limits to its safety net, intensifying poverty in the state.
ORLAND, Maine—In the eyes of the state of Maine, Laurie Kane is an able-bodied adult without dependents, and thus ineligible for most forms of government support. In her own eyes, it is hard to see how she is going to find housing, work, and stability without help.
Kane is struggling to put her life back together amid a spell of homelessness that has lasted for three years. She has a severe anxiety condition, along with other health problems, and had suffered a panic attack on the day I met her. But she had not managed to sign up for MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, because she cannot get a doctor to certify her as being disabled. That’s not because a doctor has evaluated her and found her to be fine, but because she’s been unable to get a doctor’s appointment. “I was denied MaineCare because I’m considered an able-bodied person,” she told me. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, you can just get free care.’ They say, ‘You can go to a clinic with a sliding-fee scale, which would be $20 a visit.’ But what if I can’t come up with $20?”
The president’s business tells lawmakers it is too difficult to track all its foreign revenue in accordance with constitutional requirements, and it hasn’t asked Congress for a permission slip.
Days before taking office, Donald Trump said his company would donate all profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury, part of an effort to avoid even the appearance of a conflict with the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
Now, however, the Trump Organization is telling Congress that determining exactly how much of its profits come from foreign governments is simply more trouble than it’s worth.
In response to a document request from the House Oversight Committee, Trump’s company sent a copy of an eight-page pamphlet detailing how it plans to track payments it receives from foreign governments at the firm’s many hotels, golf courses, and restaurants across the globe. But while the Trump Organization said it would set aside all money it collects from customers that identify themselves as representing a foreign government, it would not undertake a more intensive effort to determine if a payment would violate the Constitution’s prohibition on public office holders accepting an “emolument” from a foreign state.
The Republican bill would decrease access for millions, and in the process dismantle the tools used to fight substance abuse.
The middle of an unprecedented nationwide opioid epidemic might seem like a strange time to slash public funding for substance abuse, but that’s exactly what Republicans intend to do.
The American Health Care Act, which passed the House in early May and will soon be debated in some form in the Senate, will mark a major shift in national policy for opioid treatment, as well as for mental health, behavioral health, and substance abuse across the board. And it would come just after the Affordable Care Act began to create the first semblance of a true national safety net for those health issues.
Medicaid is the single largest source of funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment in the United States, and the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of the program to low-income adults was the first time there was some semblance of a national structure for treating mental health and substance abuse issues. Many people with severe substance abuse and mental-health issues also have low or no incomes or are homeless, and before the ACA were often ineligible for public insurance through Medicaid. So for that group especially—but also for millions of people with inadequate insurance or whose pre-ACA Medicaid didn’t cover mental health and substance abuse services—the only reliable way to receive care was when problems became severe enough to merit admission into an emergency room or institution.
When the FBI discovered a network of Bosnian-Americans giving support to terrorists, they also discovered Abdullah Ramo Pazara, a U.S. citizen and a battalion commander in Syria.
Abdullah Ramo Pazara had a craving for packets of instant hot cocoa. The Bosnian-American former truck driver was, at the time, a commander of an Islamic State tank battalion in Syria. Apparently, even foreign fighters who reject their former lives in Western countries for a chance at martyrdom for ISIS sometimes long for the creature comforts of their previous homes.
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In 2013, six Bosnian immigrants in the United States allegedly sent money, riflescopes, knives, military equipment, and other supplies to jihadists in Syria and Iraq through intermediaries in Bosnia and Turkey. According to the U.S. government’s allegations, individual ISIS fighters would make specific requests—mostly for money and military equipment—and the group would then raise funds and send supplies to Syria. The requests included what was surely an unexpected revelation of nostalgia—packets of Swiss Miss hot cocoa. By sending the cocoa mix and other supplies, federal prosecutors argue, these U.S.-based Bosnians provided what is known as “material support” to terrorists, in violation of the Patriot Act.
The latest installment in the flagging franchise, Dead Men Tell No Tales, offers a dreary, imitative voyage.
The subtitle of the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie is “Dead Men Tell No Tales.” The moral of the movie, alas, is that the same cannot be said of dead franchises.
The first Pirates film was an unexpected success: wildly overlong and over-plotted yet kept afloat by a wicked, bravura, and utterly original performance by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, a swishily swaggering mélange of rum, eyeliner, and impudence. As is customary, the sequel was a pale imitation, and the third installment of the presumed trilogy went a bit trippy and meta.
Which would all have been well and good enough. But money makes people do silly things. The half-hearted and wildly unnecessary fourth movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was one such thing. It will surprise no one to learn that the latest installment in the franchise is another. At least On Stranger Tides had the decency to be a standalone movie; with Dead Men Tell No Tales, there is talk of that most pernicious of cinematic gambits, the “soft reboot.”
The television host is chalking up the loss to a liberal media crusade.
At least five advertising firms have pulled their commercials from the Sean Hannity Show on Fox News following the television host’s coverage of a false murder conspiracy. On Tuesday of last week, Hannity reiterated a now-debunked theory regarding the death of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee employee who was gunned down last summer in Washington, D.C. While local police suspect the shooting to be a botched robbery, Hannity claimed that Rich was murdered over his alleged ties to WikiLeaks. Moreover, Hannity argued on Twitter that the story could potentially discount any evidence of collusion between Russian officials and the Trump administration leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election:
The organization is closing one-third of its health centers in Iowa, and local clinics are scrambling to pick up the slack.
Alexandra Rucinski has been a patient at the Planned Parenthood in Burlington, Iowa, since she unexpectedly became pregnant with her son five years ago. She was 22 years old then, and she didn’t have health insurance. So she drove to the clinic on North 8th Street, where staff helped her understand her options.
Rucinski chose to have the baby, and she has since continued to visit the health center regularly: every three months for her Depo-Provera shot, a form of injection contraception, and once a year for a breast and pelvic exam, so clinicians can monitor abnormal cells in her cervix.
On May 17, Rucinski got an email that her clinic is closing permanently.
In one of his final acts before resigning to serve as U.S. ambassador to China, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed an appropriations bill into law. The legislation contained a short section discontinuing Iowa’s family-planning network waiver (IFPN), which allows people who don’t qualify for Medicaid to receive coverage for things like contraception, pelvic exams, pap tests, and STD testing. Instead, the bill establishes a new, state-funded program that prevents funding from going to abortion-providers.