What would Kim Jong Un look like if he lost weight? Wonder no more, for social media has the answer.
“It seems clear that what invariably gets us into trouble is our tendency to demonise foreign leaders or foreign groups we neither like nor understand. In such cases, we fill our gaps of ignorance with prejudice, and the result is hostility fuelled by demagoguery, and damage done to all concerned.”
– Donald Gregg, former US Ambassador to South Korea, in his memoir, Pot Shards, published in July 2014
“Clearly reckless and risky, evolving security threat in the hands of somebody who is questionable in terms of judgment.”
– John Kerry, describing the North Korean leadership, 25th January 2016, going against the opinions of the analysts who broadly concurred that North Korea’s nuclear test was a pretty smart move in the circumstances.
“How many world leaders, you think, are just completely out of their mind?”
“A pretty sizable percentage. Some of these people, you must meet them, you’ll just be chatting and you look in the eyes and go, ‘Oh, this guy’s gone’. Part of what happens is, these guys, I think the longer they stay in office, the more likely that is to happen.”
– Barack Obama exercises the international diplomatic skills for which he has become so celebrated, while chatting to Jerry Seinfeld in December 2015
If you were ordering a nuclear test, would you end your note with an exclamation mark? I probably wouldn’t, but possibly that’s just me. I’ve been told before that my emails come across as rather soulless.
In fact, Kim’s handwritten note announcing the H-bomb test reads:
Let’s begin the year of 2016 — a glorious and victorious year when the historic seventh conference of the Workers’ Party of Korea will be held — with a thrilling sound of the first hydrogen bomb explosion, so that the whole world will look up to our socialist, nuclear-armed republic of Juche and the great Workers’ Party of Korea!
Which is actually quite endearing. It’s certainly filled with more childlike wonder and enthusiasm for the future than most of the other leaders’ new year messages that we covered here (which tend more towards weary resignation), even if it does have an eerie pre-Fallout 1950’s air to it.
If you’ve been admiring Kim’s penmanship, incidentally, rumour has it that he’s been practising specially to make his handwriting look more like his grandfather’s.
Winning the Politicians’ New Year Messages Stakes by a country mile this year is Shinzo Abe, with this impeccable display of old school cool:
This year’s effort from Vladimir Putin was also pretty good – he gets kudos for actually going out into the snow to film it this year, rather than doing it in a studio in which everyone present looks as though they’d rather be removing their own gall bladder with a hammer drill rather than ploughing their way through this dismal charade again (see also under: all Russian tv ever).
The end result is definitely up there with Shinzo Abe’s message as the best of the bunch under review here. Sure, the only thing colder than the weather is his delivery, but we weren’t expecting rainbows and unicorns.
Nice coat too.
Park Geun-hye, for her part, did a pretty standard speech hoping for growth through innovation in the year of the red monkey, which only sounds batshit insane if you’re unfamiliar with the Chinese calendar.
On the other hand, pretty much every South Korean national event involves a military component, and the film of Park honouring the RoK’s fallen soldiers is actually rather evocative, and certainly a classy look for her:
There she is putting out her cigarette at the National Cemetery.
Just kidding. She’s burning incense.
Kim Jong Un’s new year message was a pretty standard performance, notable mainly for the fact that no two media outlets were capable of agreeing on whether it was conciliatory or belligerent (see under: choose your own adventure):
Similarly, the aesthetics of Xi Jinping’s speech were much the same as last year (which we covered in great detail here).
In fact, if you pay close attention, you will notice that all of the books and photos are in exactly the same positions as last year, arguing strongly in favour of this being a stage set.
Oh, and he also promised that China will
be kicking ass and taking names “not be absent” internationally in 2016, which is pretty ominous however you look at it.
Pranab Mukherjee was also broadcasting from a fake office, and an unsettlingly non-euclidean one at that:
Is that green thing wall or carpet? Are those bookcases resting on the floor or some sort of trompe-l’oeil effect painted onto the plaster? Look at that thing for too long and you’ll find yourself feeling oddly sea-sick. It’s clearly got to Gandhi already.
He also dropped some pretty heavy hints on the subject of tolerance, seemingly directed at Narendra Modi and his followers.
By contrast, Lee Hsien Loong gave his message not only from within the four mundane dimensions of time and space, but inside a real room. He’s been on holiday in Korea for the past two or three weeks, which explains the rather relaxed look (even if the deskless chair makes him look like he’s applying for a job):
On the whole, it’s a well-judged and nicely reassuring speech, and worth watching here.
This looks and sounds insane to anyone who isn’t North Korean, but it’s worth noticing that:
So while the participants in this scene probably aren’t really as ecstatic as they appear, it’s equally unlikely that they’re secretly dying a little inside at the indignity of it all. Another day, another won…
Courtesy of Russia Today:
Breaking small rules: it can do so much to endear a politician to the voters. Consider the famous photo of Jacques Chirac jumping the barrier in the Paris metro when he was Mayor:
Obviously it’s a photo-op and he’s not really fare-dodging, but it gets a response out of us because we’ve all jumped the barrier at some point. Yes, even you. Don’t play the innocent with me.
To quote an old post:
He was the authorities, but he retained an air of anti-authority chutzpah til the end. People felt as though he was one of us, even when he was more or less openly manipulating the political system in favour of ‘them’.
Boris Johnson takes things a step further, and manages to get away with serial infidelities by reacting to their discovery as though they were just laddish misdemeanours, more or less on the same level as jumping the barrier on the underground. And, by and large, voters are willing to go along with it. As Paul Goodman put it:
In modern politics unconventional politicians are judged by different rules from conventional ones.
Even the story about David Cameron putting his cock in a dead pig’s mouth at a Piers Gaveston society party failed to damage him in the way that many of the more puritanical elements on the left hoped. We’ve all done stupid things while young and drunk, after all (even, whisper it not, the holier-than-thou Spartists among us). Quoting Brendan O’Neill:
Dave, King of the Lads. If only he would fess up to his pig thing (if it’s true) and take ownership of it. In 2015, it often feels like the world is ruled by the unworldly, by over-spun politicians, a moralistic media class, and fun-allergic student bureaucrats. Pig-gate gives me hope — hope that behind Cameron’s too glossy veneer there might just lurk a real man. Maybe even a bloke.
And this is where Barack Obama’s PR people may have made their biggest mistake. No, not in preventing him from fucking livestock, but with regards to a habit that – these days, at least – is almost equally reviled. We all know that Obama smokes at least sporadically, and yet there are no leaked photos out there of him puffing away in the Oval Office
Well, actually, there are, but they’re all poor photoshops. But here’s the thing…
That’s a fake (for the original, see here), but doesn’t he look a million times more sympathetic in that picture than when standing behind a podium, blandly explaining to us why this latest Middle Eastern bombing expedition really is necessary?
Hell, a cigarette can even soften Kim Jong Un’s image:
So why doesn’t the Obama media machine just let us see him smoking? Well, probably because they’re middle-aged Beltway democrats who wear Fitbits and drink kale smoothies and see smoking as being the next thing to genocide.
For the rest of us poor schleps who are just trying to get through the day and put some food on the table, however, a few pics of the leader of the free world demonstrating that he too has his indulgences would go a long way towards increasing our sympathy for him.
That is – I am not kidding – the most frequent North Korea related question I get. So now you know.
(Real answer: these are actually “field guidance” sessions. The people on the ground are supposed to listen and take note of the Leader’s advice, before putting it into practice in their work. The tradition was inherited from Kim Il Sung and is not always the most efficient way to make policy.)
No, not him. Him:
Ma Won Chun, the architect that Kim Jong Un supposedly had executed back in November of last year because he didn’t like his latest airport design. In fact, he’s alive and well and, according to KCNA, wandering round Rason in KJU’s entourage.
This is the latest in a long line of miraculous North Korean resurrections, and the reasons for the phenomenon are various.
a) The reports are based on sketchy rumours coming out of North Korea, and thus not super-reliable. Another story had Ma dying of a heart attack upon being summoned to visit the dear leader. Other tales merely suggested that he had been purged. Which leads us to a second point:
b) A lot of people – even within the media and among Asia specialists – tend to see the word “purged”, but read the word “executed”. I assume that this is a hangover from the Moscow trials. In fact, the two are not the same thing. Kim Jong Un is, in fact, unusual in that he does execute a reasonable proportion of the people he purges. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, by contrast, tended to use purges more as a political naughty step. After a few months in the wilderness and a self-criticism session or two, you’d generally be let back into the party. (Rumour has it that Margaret Thatcher used the post of Northern Ireland Secretary in much the same way.)
c) North Korean rumours are picked up and embellished by South Korean tabloids (this means you, Chosun Ilbo). The Western media then gets them from the Chosun Ilbo website, and reprints them as gospel truth.
We’ve already touched upon the everything funds terrorism phenomenon, whereunder everything from ivory poaching to the Pirate Bay can be linked by a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon-esque process to terrorism.
North Korea funds terrorism too, of course (everything funds terrorism), but North Korean politics also demonstrates another related phenomenon: everything is a sign of instability.
Experts have been predicting the collapse of North Korea since before it was founded, of course, but the tendency is not limited to the DPRK (though it is a particular hotspot).
The problem is that if you’re invited to editorialise on CNN or in the Times or something, and you say ‘Well yeah, nothing very interesting is going on’, you probably won’t be invited back. Moreover, pointing to problems -in whatever field – makes you look smarter.
It’s called hypercriticism. When we hear negative statements, we think they’re inherently more intelligent than positive ones. Teresa Amabile, director of research for Harvard Business School, began exploring this back in the 1980s. She took a group of 55 students, roughly half men, half women, and showed them excerpts from two book reviews printed in an issue of The New York Times. The same reviewer wrote both, but Amabile anonymized them and tweaked the language to produce two versions of each—one positive, one negative. Then she asked the students to evaluate the reviewer’s intelligence.
The verdict was clear: The students thought the negative author was smarter than the positive one—“by a lot,” Amabile tells me. Most said the nastier critic was “more competent.” Granted, being negative wasn’t all upside—they also rated the harsh reviewer as “less warm and more cruel, not as nice,” she says. “But definitely smarter.” Like my mordant tweets, presumably.
We saw the ‘everything is a sign of instability’ concept getting an exceptionally good workout following the NIS’s revelations/retractions regarding the purge and/or execution of Hyon Yong Chol.
A few days later, when various doubts had been thrown upon the execution story, the same experts came back with analysis pieces declaring that Hyon’s non-execution was, yep, you’ve guessed it, a sign of instability.
Recent reports that the once-powerful general, Hyon Yong-chol, had been executed by firing squad because he fell asleep in a meeting with the ruler have since been downplayed, with South Korea saying he has been “purged” but “not necessarily killed”. But both occurrences point to vulnerabilities at the very top of the DPRK.
And it’s not just the big stories that are harbingers of North Korea’s collapse. Kim Jong Un visited a terrapin farm this week, and was mildly critical of both the centre’s ideological education apparatus and its failed attempts to breed lobsters.
This is – altogether now – a sign of instability:
“I think the phrase ‘room for the education in revolutionary history’ is critical. It means Kim is trying to conducting an ideological struggle,” Kang Dong-wan, professor of political science at Dong-A University told NK News.
“It is a very exceptional case of guidance, usually they take pictures together and Kim praises the workers. This kind of anger shows his regime is not completely stable.”
Of course, anyone with any experience of human behaviour at all will be able to tell you immediately that Kim criticising DPRK institutions is – far from being a sign of instability – rather an indication of relative security.
When an authoritarian regime feels confident in itself, that’s when it relaxes with regard to internal criticism, since everyday bitching is a handy way for the leadership to monitor public opinion (we’ve seen this lately in China, where various high-level pols were said to be opposed to Xi Jinping’s campaign against online ‘rumours’, instead seeing them as a useful way of finding out who was pissed off and about what).
Coincidentally, NK News published a very good article by Andrei Lankov about North Korea’s 1955 famine that makes precisely this point. Kim Il Sung’s shaky regime went out of its way to crack down on anyone who may have suggested that things in the Hermit Kingdom were not entirely tickety-boo, precisely because it was so fragile. Compare Stalin declaring in the middle of the purges that ‘Life is better now, life is more fun’.
Moreover, the more open attitude to field guidance fits in with other indications that North Korea is going in for a more relaxed style of propaganda. Check out their recent tv shows, ‘popular’ demonstrations, and photo-ops. These are all things that would never have happened under Kim Jong Il (though possibly under Kim Il Sung at certain particular points in history).
The idea that generals always fight the last war is a common one, but it applies equally well to professional analysts. Right now, the majority of foreign affairs specialists are experts on North Korea of the late 1990s, not North Korea in 2015. North Korea now is still shaky and traumatised, but has a far clearer and more confident idea of where it is heading than at any time since the end of the Cold War.