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 president’s irate criticism of the omnibus spending bill demonstrates his continued attachment to a flawed theory of the presidency.
In the end, Donald Trump had to sign the bill—for the military, he said. But he didn’t have to like it.
That was the upshot of a peculiar and rambling set of remarks (even by his standards) the president made early Friday afternoon as he signed a bill funding the government through September.
“I’ve signed this omnibus budget bill. There are a lot of things I’m unhappy about in this bill,” Trump said. “But I say to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again. I’m not going to do it again.”
What it came down to, apparently, was defense spending. Trump threatened to veto the bill in a tweet Friday morning, after the White House had previously indicated he’d sign it. (My colleague Elaina Plott reported, however, that the president himself had reservations at that time.) Throughout the remarks, Trump returned incessantly to the question of funding national defense.
Gigantic piles of impounded, abandoned, and broken bicycles have become a familiar sight in many Chinese cities, after a rush to build up its new bike-sharing industry vastly overreached.
Last year, bike sharing took off in China, with dozens of bike-share companies quickly flooding city streets with millions of brightly colored rental bicycles. However, the rapid growth vastly outpaced immediate demand and overwhelmed Chinese cities, where infrastructure and regulations were not prepared to handle a sudden flood of millions of shared bicycles. Riders would park bikes anywhere, or just abandon them, resulting in bicycles piling up and blocking already-crowded streets and pathways. As cities impounded derelict bikes by the thousands, they moved quickly to cap growth and regulate the industry. Vast piles of impounded, abandoned, and broken bicycles have become a familiar sight in many big cities. As some of the companies who jumped in too big and too early have begun to fold, their huge surplus of bicycles can be found collecting dust in vast vacant lots. Bike sharing remains very popular in China, and will likely continue to grow, just probably at a more sustainable rate. Meanwhile, we are left with these images of speculation gone wild—the piles of debris left behind after the bubble bursts.
This is no way for two grown humans to make a major life decision.
The marriage proposal is one of the most ritualized moments in modern American life. Growing up, many girls are instilled with a specific idea of how it should go: He’ll take us somewhere romantic—we’ll have no idea what’s happening—he’ll get down on one knee—we’ll start crying—he’ll pop the question—we’ll immediately say yes. It should be magical.
But for a lot of heterosexual couples, the proposal—as movies portray it, as many millennial women have internalized it—doesn’t reflect the kind of modern, egalitarian relationships many women want today. Whom to marry is among the most important decisions most people will ever make in their lives, and yet it’s not a choice made in the course of a conversation—the normal way two grown humans make big life decisions. Instead, it has to be a show, with a prefixed grand finale: “yes.”
A new six-part Netflix documentary is a stunning dive into a utopian religious community in Oregon that descended into darkness.
To describe Wild Wild Country as jaw-dropping is to understate the number of times my mouth gaped while watching the series, a six-part Netflix documentary about a religious community in Oregon in the 1980s. It’s ostensibly the story of how a group led by the dynamic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh purchased 64,000 acres of land in central Oregon in a bid to build its own utopian city. But, as the series immediately reveals, the narrative becomes darker and stranger than you might ever imagine. It’s a tale that mines the weirdness of the counterculture in the ’70s and ’80s, the age-old conflict between rural Americans and free love–preaching cityfolk, and the emotional vacuum that compels people to interpret a bearded mystic as something akin to a god.
Considering SpaceX accidentally blew up one of Mark Zuckerberg’s projects, this is a little awkward.
This week’s revelations about a British political consultancy’s use of data from 50 million Facebook users for potentially shady purposes has prompted many people to declare they will quit the social network in protest. One of the newest additions to the bandwagon is Elon Musk, the wealthy entrepreneur with companies like Tesla and Space X to his name—and he followed through in a very public way.
It happened, as these things do, on Twitter.
“It is time. #deletefacebook,” Brian Acton, the cofounder of the messaging service WhatsApp, tweeted on Tuesday, the day the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation into how Cambridge Analytica accessed the Facebook data. For whatever reason, Musk decided to respond to Acton’s tweet on Friday. “What’s Facebook?” he replied. He appeared to be joking, but someone decided to call his bluff.
The original sitcom reveled in complexity. In the premiere of its highly anticipated reboot, though, it has simplified politics down to easy partisanship.
“We’re not going to talk about who the Conners are going to vote for. I think people would turn us off real quick.”
That was Roseanne Barr, talking with the Los Angeles Timesabout the politics of the original version of her hit ABC sitcom. It was 1992: The American presidential campaign, Bill Clinton versus George H. W. Bush versus Ross Perot, was being waged. Dan Quayle was arguing about family values with a fictional journalist. Roseanne, though—the producer, the character, the star—was insisting that her TV family transcended both the vagaries of political partisanship and the messiness of the culture wars themselves. The Conners are “somewhere in the middle of it all,” Barr said, “not knowing what anything stands for anymore. So really what they do is go to work and come home to be with their family, and try to make do.”
How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory
One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics—really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history—is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.
Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.
How sugar daddies and vaginal microbes created the world’s largest HIV epidemic
VULINDLELA, South Africa—Mbali N. was just 17 when a well-dressed man in his 30s spotted her. She was at a mall in a nearby town, alone, when he called out. He might have been captivated by her almond eyes and soaring cheekbones. Or he might have just seen her for what she was: young and poor.
She tried to ignore him, she told me, but he followed her. They exchanged numbers. By the time she got home, he had called her. He said he wasn’t married, and she doesn’t know if that was true. They met at a house in a different township; she doesn’t know if it belonged to him. Mbali, who is now 24, also doesn’t know if he had HIV.
She enjoyed spending time with the man during the day, when they would talk and go to the movies. But she didn’t like it when he called at night and demanded to have sex, which happened about six times a month. When she refused him, he beat her. For her trouble, he gave her a cellphone, sweets, and chocolates.
The president is surrounding himself with familiar faces from his favorite cable-news network—but may not find in them what he seeks.
Remember “bring in the grown-ups”? They have all now been carried off, with the sole exception of Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Instead, Trump is staffing his administration and his legal team with familiar personalities from his preferred cable-news channel—much like an imperious child demanding that his crib be stuffed with his TV-cartoon favorites.
Now perhaps the most important West Wing job of them all is to be filled by John Bolton, a figure with an authentic background in government, yes—he held a recess appointment as ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 until December 2006—but whose achievements over the past dozen years have been posted principally in the field of television punditry.