Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Fun facts" about North Korea not all that funny

There doesn’t seem to be much known about North Korea, other than the fact that it is isolated, has a paranoid leadership--which its bizarre efforts to develop nuclear weapons appears to demonstrate— is poor and frequently detains Americans they accuse of trying to overthrow the government. North Korea is so inconsequential, other than an artifact of the U.S.’ Cold War past, it hardly makes an impression, which must explain its efforts to attract high-profile Americans every time it arrests someone for a largely imaginary crime. Of North Korea’s latest detainees, Jeffrey Fowle and Mathew Miller, it appears that Fowle committed the “crime” of overstaying his welcome—I mean, two or three months is plenty long enough to “poison” the minds of a lot of people. Miller, on the other hand, supposedly just didn’t want to go back home at all. 

Why Americans go to this country at all seems rather mysterious, since it is little more than rugged, hilly and largely barren, and not a particularly pleasant vacation spot at all. One would hope that visitors just go there to maintain old family ties, or just to gain firsthand knowledge of this strange place. What North Korea claims is that some of these people are there not there to “visit,” but to proselytize not just in religion, but politically. Both versions are rather strongly frowned upon in a country teetering on the edge of economic collapse.

Anyways, I know as much about the country as the next person, so I decided to find out what the CIA World Factbook has to say about North Korea. The Korean peninsula, it seems, was a land and people that didn’t like foreigners at all. Unlike China, which frequently had unwanted visitors from Europe, it maintained its isolated independence until 1905, when Japan—after its victory over Russia in 1905—decided that Korea was part of the “spoils” of winning, and incorporated the entire country into its newly-emerging “empire,” and predictably exploiting the population in various ways. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the country was split into Communist and Western zones of influence, in the manner of Germany. The Communist side never accepted this partition, and the Korean War ensued, which ended in a stalemate. 

Following the war, North Korea followed a policy of “self-reliance” in order to avoid any international intermingling. Not surprisingly, it “demonized the US as the ultimate threat to its social system through state-funded propaganda,” to the purpose of  molding ‘political, economic, and military policies around the core ideological objective of eventual unification of Korea” as a Communist state, obviously not something that South Koreans wish to experience, and North Korean leadership continuously fails to fathom. 

According to the Factbook, North Korea’s national “priorities” seem hopelessly misallocated:

After decades of economic mismanagement and resource misallocation, the DPRK since the mid-1990s has relied heavily on international aid to feed its population. The DPRK began to ease restrictions to allow semi-private markets, starting in 2002, but then sought to roll back the scale of economic reforms in 2005 and 2009. North Korea's history of regional military provocations; proliferation of military-related items; long-range missile development; WMD programs including tests of nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, and 2013; and massive conventional armed forces are of major concern to the international community. The regime in 2013 announced a new policy calling for the simultaneous development of the North's nuclear weapons program and its economy.

The present leader of North Korea is Kim Jong Un, whose principle “qualification” is that he is the son of the son of North Korea’s first head of state. There are “elections” in yet another dictatorship that styles itself as a “democratic republic,” but the so-called “Supreme People's Assembly” is nothing more than a “rubberstamp” for anything that pops into the supreme leaders’ head. This is helped by the fact that North Korea maintains a “cult” of leadership, as deceased former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il remain in the public consciousness as “Eternal President and Eternal General Secretary respectively.”

According to the Factbook, North Korea’s economy is hopelessly lost so long as the current leadership remains mired in its isolated fantasia:   

North Korea, one of the world's most centrally directed and least open economies, faces chronic economic problems. Industrial capital stock is nearly beyond repair as a result of years of underinvestment, shortages of spare parts, and poor maintenance. Large-scale military spending draws off resources needed for investment and civilian consumption. Industrial and power output have stagnated for years at a fraction of pre-1990 levels. Frequent weather-related crop failures aggravated chronic food shortages caused by on-going systemic problems, including a lack of arable land, collective farming practices, poor soil quality, insufficient fertilization, and persistent shortages of tractors and fuel. Large-scale international food aid deliveries have allowed the people of North Korea to escape widespread starvation since famine threatened in 1995, but the population continues to suffer from prolonged malnutrition and poor living conditions.

North Korea has made some tiny effort to attract targeted foreign investment from “friendly” countries, but for the most part continues to shoot itself in the foot: “In response to the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea's government cut off most aid, trade, and bilateral cooperation activities, with the exception of operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex.” It is the people, of course, who suffer most as the top leadership hordes all the best of what there is for themselves. Per capita income is a measly $1,800 a year, ranking 198th in the world, right there with the poorest African nations. Unlike other Asian countries, North Korean has failed utterly to make a dent on the world market in cheap manufactured goods. 

I suppose that it should come as no surprise, then, that North Korea has an obesity rate of only 3.9 percent—compared to American Samoa’s 74.6 percent, and the U.S.’ 33 percent. The life expectancy rate, however, is on the lower rung of the scale at 69.6 years, with males living almost 10 years less than females.

Human rights are obviously not a priority in North Korea. According to the Factbook,

North Korea is a source country for men, women, and children who are subjected to forced labor, forced marriage, and sex trafficking; in the recent past, many North Korean women and girls lured by promises of food, jobs, and freedom migrated to China illegally to escape poor social and economic conditions only to be forced into prostitution, marriage, or exploitative labor arrangements; North Koreans do not have a choice in the work the government assigns them and are not free to change jobs at will; many North Korean workers recruited to work abroad under bilateral contracts with foreign governments are subjected to forced labor and reportedly face government reprisals if they try to escape or complain to outsiders; thousands of North Koreans, including children, are subjected to forced labor in prison camps.

There are more “fun facts” to learn about North Korea. But what for? They don’t like anyone, and nobody likes them (except maybe former NBA star Dennis Rodman)—and the country likes things just the way they are.

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