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.
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.