Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Happy Kim Jong-Un's Birthday

Celebrated: In North Korea since 1983 or 1984, a national holiday for the first time last year

The North Korea state radio station reported that Kim Jong-Un was personally distributing two pounds of candy to every child in North Korea in celebration of his birthday — although it's not clear how old he is, or even that today is the actual date. Officially, he's 29 today. But January 8 is also Elvis' birthday, and wouldn't that be enough to make anyone claim it for their own?

At 29, Kim Jong-Un is the world's youngest head of state. The next youngest is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Dragon King of Bhutan, who rules over fewer than a million people and — as far as we know — has no access to nuclear weapons. North Korea, on the other hand, is a nation of 24.5 million, of whom approximately 9.5 million (39%) serve in the active or reserve military or some kind of paramilitary organization.

Serving in the military is the best way to get access to food. North Korea's Songun policy, or "Military First," gives members of the military priority when distributing any scarce resources. This policy was directly responsible for astronomical (though still obscure) child mortality rates during the great famine of 1994-98, when the World Health Organization estimated death rates at 93 for every 1,000 children. Even today, if Kim Jong-Un really did give kids candy, it might be the only food they get today; drought and flooding destroyed at least 13% of last year's grain harvest, driving speculation that the country faces another terrible famine. The U.N. reported last year that one in three North Korean children are already stunted by malnutrition.

North Korea is a human rights calamity that the international community can't do much about. It's been that way for 60 years, since the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 codified the border of North and South Korea and created the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between them. Under President Obama, the U.S. has reached out to North Korea to try to stop its nuclear program and feed its people, culminating in a "Leap Day" deal last February under which North Korea agreed to suspend parts of its nuclear program in exchange for massive amounts of food aid. That deal lasted less than a month; North Korea announced plans to launch a satellite in March, and by the end of the month, the US had suspended its aid programs.

It's human nature to accept one's environment as normal, whatever "normal" may be. Disturbing that equilibrium requires outside intervention of some kind; it's no coincidence, for example, that the Soviet Union fell within a couple of years of European MTV becoming available to viewers in then-Leningrad. (I'm not saying MTV led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the realization that the rest of the world didn't live in Soviet-style misery was a critical element in the collapse of the old regime.)

A large portion of the North Korean population, however, doesn't even have reliable access to electricity. What would it take to show them the possibility of a different way of life?

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