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 former New York mayor is the splashy hire, but the addition of two other attorneys to the president’s team may say more about where the Mueller probe is going.
Sometimes the biggest news items on a given day aren’t the most telling ones.
Consider three stories on Thursday about President Trump’s legal issues. First, Bloomberg reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told the president last week that he is not a target of either special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation nor of a separate investigation in Manhattan that produced a raid on his longtime fixer, Michael Cohen.
A few hours later, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, U.S. Attorney, and presidential candidate, said he was joining Trump’s legal team, telling The Washington Post, “I’m doing it because I hope we can negotiate an end to this for the good of the country and because I have high regard for the president and for Bob Mueller.”
Floyd Landis, a former teammate of the cyclist’s, just won more than $1 million in a legal case against Armstrong. Here are his thoughts on the suit, cycling, and his onetime rival.
At 5:19 p.m. on Friday, April 30, 2010, Floyd Landis hit send on what would prove the most consequential email of his life. Addressed to the then-CEO of USA Cycling, Steve Johnson, the email bore the subject line “nobody is copied on this one so it’s up to you to demonstrate your true colors….” It went on to detail, year by year, how Landis and other members of the United States Postal Service team had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs and methods to dominate the sport of cycling and claim victories at the sport’s premier event, the Tour de France. The email, later included in Landis’s 2012 affidavit for a United States Anti-Doping Agency (usada) investigation, clearly implicated many of his former teammates—most famously, the seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong (who declined to comment for this article).
A crop of books by disillusioned physicians reveals a corrosive doctor-patient relationship at the heart of our health-care crisis.
For someone in her 30s, I’ve spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices and hospitals, shivering on exam tables in my open-to-the-front gown, recording my medical history on multiple forms, having enough blood drawn in little glass tubes to satisfy a thirsty vampire. In my early 20s, I contracted a disease that doctors were unable to identify for years—in fact, for about a decade they thought nothing was wrong with me—but that nonetheless led to multiple complications, requiring a succession of surgeries, emergency-room visits, and ultimately (when tests finally showed something was wrong) trips to specialists for MRIs and lots more testing. During the time I was ill and undiagnosed, I was also in and out of the hospital with my mother, who was being treated for metastatic cancer and was admitted twice in her final weeks.
With friends like these, the president should probably reconsider his messaging strategy.
The presumption of innocence is essential to the American legal system. Sometimes prosecutors and the press need to be reminded of this. It’s not as often that the allies of a defendant, or even a prospective defendant, forget.
Yet allies of President Trump have made some peculiar comments over the last few days, as Jonathan Chait, Josh Barro, and Orin Kerr note. Anthony Scaramucci says Michael Cohen would not flip on Trump because he is “a very loyal person.” Alan Dershowitz, enjoying a strange encore act as Trump’s most prominent legal defender, told Politico, “That’s what they’ll threaten him with: life imprisonment. They’re going to threaten him with a long prison term and try to turn him into a canary that sings.”
A new study warns it has become a “highly altered, degraded system.”
Once upon a time, there was a city so dazzling and kaleidoscopic, so braided and water-rimmed, that it was often compared to a single living body. It clustered around a glimmering emerald spine, which astronauts could glimpse from orbit. It hid warm nooks and crannies, each a nursery for new life. It opened into radiant, iris-colored avenues, which tourists crossed oceans to see. The city was, the experts declared, the planet’s largest living structure.
Then, all at once, a kind of invisible wildfire overran the city. It consumed its avenues and neighborhoods, swallowed its canyons and branches. It expelled an uncountable number of dwellers from their homes. It was merciless: Even those who escaped the initial ravishment perished in the famine that followed.
To get a job at the Museum of Ice Cream, hopeful future employees show up at the weekly casting call, Tuesdays at noon. They head to the former Savings Union Bank in San Francisco’s financial district, where pink banners announce, in minimalist font, the name of the employer-to-be. Inside, there are giant animal cookies on carousel mounts. Gardens of gummies. A minty scent wafting through a jungle of mint leaves. Each day, roughly 1,700 people pay $38 a ticket to march through the maze of rooms, licking pink vanilla soft-serve cones, following instructions from a cotton candy server to text someone in their life whom they consider the “cherry on top,” and, all the while, angling for photos. It is as if Willy Wonka had redesigned his factory for the selfie age.
Last week I quoted a long dispatch from a Harvard graduate now living in New Haven, on why he thought the Trump era held more perils for elite-level schools like Harvard and Yale than they might be anticipating. Readers chimed in to agree, disagree, and share parallel experiences here.
I’ve received a flood of mail since then—supportive, angry, provocative in various ways—which I’ll work through and quote as circumstances allow. But for real-time reasons, I want to quote one of them today. It’s from Justin Kaplan, a current graduate student at Harvard, who is originally from southern Virginia and went to college at the University of Virginia. (He points out that he is one of a set of triplets, which has affected his parents’ ability to support his higher-education costs.)
Most recently, the PBS show Frontline titled an episode “Trump’s Takeover.” In its telling, President Trump wasn’t yet in control of the GOP as recently as his failed effort to get a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare through Congress. Then, he succeeded in signing a tax-reform bill into law. In the celebration that followed, he was praised by Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Orrin Hatch, even as critics like Senator Jeff Flake were preparing to step away from politics.
The intense media focus on President Trump’s personal dramas hurts the party’s ability to sell its message to the voters it needs most.
It was telling that as Tax Day arrived this week, the media’s focus was riveted not on the massive tax overhaul that President Trump recently signed into law, but on James Comey, Stormy Daniels, and Michael Cohen.
In their own ways, these three players in the Trump drama symbolize the ethical storms and moral challenges constantly buffeting the president. Those tempests have imposed an unmistakable political cost on Trump—whose approval rating remains far below what might be expected in an economy this strong—and they represent an inescapable threat to Republicans in the November midterm elections.
What’s ironic is that these storms pose a challenge for Democrats, too: The intense media attention on Trump’s personal deficiencies might not actually move many more voters than they already have, and the economic message pushed by Democrats—one that’s rooted, in part, in the tax bill—is having a hard time breaking through.
It only took five minutes for Gavin Schmidt to out-speculate me.
Schmidt is the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (a.k.a. GISS) a world-class climate-science facility. One day last year, I came to GISS with a far-out proposal. In my work as an astrophysicist, I’d begun researching global warming from an “astrobiological perspective.” That meant asking whether any industrial civilization that rises on any planet will, through their own activity, trigger their own version of a climate shift. I was visiting GISS that day hoping to gain some climate science insights and, perhaps, collaborators. That’s how I ended up in Gavin’s office.
Just as I was revving up my pitch, Gavin stopped me in my tracks.