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 revolutionary ideals of Black Panther’s profound and complex villain have been twisted into a desire for hegemony.
The following article contains major spoilers.
Black Panther is a love letter to people of African descent all over the world. Its actors, its costume design, its music, and countless other facets of the film are drawn from all over the continent and its diaspora, in a science-fiction celebration of the imaginary country of Wakanda, a high-tech utopia that is a fictive manifestation of African potential unfettered by slavery and colonialism.
But it is first and foremost an African American love letter, and as such it is consumed with The Void, the psychic and cultural wound caused by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the loss of life, culture, language, and history that could never be restored. It is the attempt to penetrate The Void that brought us Alex Haley’s Roots, that draws thousands of African Americans across the ocean to visit West Africa every year, that left me crumpled on the rocks outside the Door of No Return at Gorée Island’s slave house as I stared out over a horizon that my ancestors might have traversed once and forever. Because all they have was lost to The Void, I can never know who they were, and neither can anyone else.
A week after 17 people were murdered in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, teenagers across South Florida, in areas near Washington, D.C., and in other parts of the United States walked out of their classrooms to stage protests against the horror of school shootings and to advocate for gun law reforms.
A week after 17 people were murdered in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, teenagers across South Florida, in areas near Washington, D.C., and in other parts of the United States walked out of their classrooms to stage protests against the horror of school shootings and to advocate for gun law reforms. Student survivors of the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School traveled to their state Capitol to attend a rally, meet with legislators, and urge them to do anything they can to make their lives safer. These teenagers are speaking clearly for themselves on social media, speaking loudly to the media, and they are speaking straight to those in power—challenging lawmakers to end the bloodshed with their “#NeverAgain” movement.
In Cyprus, Estonia, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere, passports can now be bought and sold.
“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means,” the British prime minister, Theresa May, declared in October 2016. Not long after, at his first postelection rally, Donald Trump asserted, “There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag and that flag is the American flag.” And in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has increased his national-conservative party’s popularity with statements like “all the terrorists are basically migrants” and “the best migrant is the migrant who does not come.”
Citizenship and its varying legal definition has become one of the key battlegrounds of the 21st century, as nations attempt to stake out their power in a G-Zero, globalized world, one increasingly defined by transnational, borderless trade and liquid, virtual finance. In a climate of pervasive nationalism, jingoism, xenophobia, and ever-building resentment toward those who move, it’s tempting to think that doing so would become more difficult. But alongside the rise of populist, identitarian movements across the globe, identity itself is being virtualized, too. It no longer needs to be tied to place or nation to function in the global marketplace.
The preacher, dead at 99, advised presidents, mentored clergy, and influenced millions of people. Will his legacy of non-partisan outreach continue?
Billy Graham, the famous preacher who reached millions of people around the world through his Christian ministry, died on Wednesday at 99. Over the course of more than six decades, he reshaped the landscape of evangelism, sharing the gospel from North Carolina to North Korea and developing innovative ways to communicate the message of the Bible. He influenced generations of pastors and developed friendships with presidents, prime ministers, and royalty around the world. His death marks the end of an era for evangelicalism, and poses a fundamental question: Will his legacy of bipartisan, ecumenical outreach be carried forward?
Graham came up as a preacher during the post-war era, a time when American Christianity was being radically remade. “When Billy came on the scene, fundamentalism, as it’s called, was really prevalent,” said Greg Laurie, the pastor of the California megachurch Harvest Christian Fellowship and member of the board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, in an interview. “Billy wanted to broaden the base and reach more people.”
On Tuesday, the district attorney in Durham, North Carolina, dismissed all remaining charges in the August case. What does that mean for the future of statues around the country?
DURHAM, N.C.—“Let me be clear, no one is getting away with what happened.”
That was Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews’s warning on August 15, 2017. The day before, a protest had formed on the lawn outside the county offices in an old courthouse. In more or less broad daylight, some demonstrators had leaned a ladder against the plinth, reading, “In memory of the boys who wore the gray,” and looped a strap around it. Then the crowd pulled down the statue, and it crumpled cheaply on the grass. It was a brazen act, witnessed by dozens of people, some of them filming on cell phones.
Andrews was wrong. On Tuesday, a day after a judge dismissed charges against two defendants and acquitted a third, Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols announced the state was in effect surrendering, dismissing charges against six other defendants.
The president’s son is selling luxury condos and making a foreign-policy speech.
Who does Donald Trump Jr. speak for?
Does the president’s son speak for the Trump Organization as he promotes luxury apartments in India? Does he speak for himself when he dines with investors in the projects? Does he speak for the Trump administration as he makes a foreign-policy speech in Mumbai on Friday?
“When these sons go around all over the world talking about, one, Trump business deals and, two, … apparently giving speeches on some United States government foreign policy, they are strongly suggesting a linkage between the two,” Richard Painter, President George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer who is a professor of law at the University of Minnesota, told me. “Somebody, somewhere is going to cross the line into suggesting a quid pro quo.”
The path to its revival lies in self-sacrifice, and in placing collective interests ahead of the narrowly personal.
The death of liberalism constitutes the publishing world’s biggest mass funeral since the death of God half a century ago. Some authors, like conservative philosopher Patrick Deneen, of Why Liberalism Failed, have come to bury yesterday’s dogma. Others, like Edward Luce (The Retreat of Western Liberalism), Mark Lilla (The Once and Future Liberal), and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) come rather to praise. I’m in the latter group; the title-in-my-head of the book I’m now writing is What Was Liberalism.
But perhaps, like God, liberalism has been buried prematurely. Maybe the question that we should be asking is not what killed liberalism, but rather, what can we learn from liberalism’s long story of persistence—and how can we apply those insights in order to help liberalism write a new story for our own time.
A new study finds that many household goods degrade air quality more than once thought.
On the final day of April 2010, unbeknownst to most locals, a small fleet of specialists and equipment from the U.S. government descended on the seas and skies around Los Angeles.
A “Hurricane Hunter” Lockheed P-3 flew in from Denver. The U.S. Navy vessel Atlantis loitered off the coast of Santa Monica. Orbiting satellites took special measurements. And dozens of scientists set up temporary labs across the basin, in empty Pasadena parking lots and at the peak of Mount Wilson.
This was all part of a massive U.S. government study with an ambitious goal: Measure every type of gas or chemical that wafted by in the California air.
Jessica Gilman, a research chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was one member of the invading horde. For six weeks, she monitored one piece of equipment—a kind of “souped-up, ruggedized” instrument—as it sat outside in Pasadena, churning through day and night, measuring the amount of chemicals in the air. It was designed to detect one type of air pollutant in particular: volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. VOCs are best known for their presence in car exhaust, but they are also found in gases released by common household products, like cleaners, house paints, and nail polish.
Outside powers have been central to the nuclear crisis—but for a few peculiar weeks in February.
Of all the arguments in favor of allowing North Korea to leap into the spotlight with South Korea at the Winter Olympics—what with its deceptively smiley diplomats and even more smiley cheerleaders and the world’s most celebrated winless hockey team—one hasn’t received much attention. “It’s tragic that people of shared history, blood, language, and culture have been divided through geopolitics of the superpowers,” Talia Yoon, a resident of Seoul, toldThe New York Times when the paper asked South Koreans for their thoughts on the rapprochement between North and South Korea at the Olympics. “Neither Korea has ever been truly independent since the division.”
In this telling, having Korean athletes march under a unification flag at the Opening Ceremony and compete jointly in women’s hockey isn’t just about the practical goal of ensuring the Games aren’t disrupted by an act of North Korean aggression, or the loftier objective of seizing a rare opportunity for a diplomatic resolution to the escalating crisis over Kim Jong Un’s nuclear-weapons program. It’s also about Koreans—for a couple surreal weeks in February, at least—plucking some control over that crisis from the superpowers that have been so influential in shaping it over the past year.