Sunday, June 7, 2009

"Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

Shelley probably had an old, dusty has-been in mind when he wrote Ozymandias. I wonder if a delusional never-was could qualify as the potential subject of the poem.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea(or the less sexy 'North' Korea) is a "shattered visage" not unlike Babylon or Carthage. The main difference is that Babylon and Carthage actually had some good years before crumbling to pieces. North Korea, on the other hand, reminds me of the classic RISK strategy: a thick, imposing shell but nothing in the middle.

Kim Jong-Il, pictured here with his charming family, is a despot in the grand tradition of Stalin and Mao: cult of personality, fear of death, drab clothing, etc. The prickly dictator has gone out of his way to appear tough and secure while his country simultaneously starves. Some estimate that the mid-90s famine claimed some 2 million North Korean lives. Through the most controlled financial system in the world and an outrageous focus on military spending, Kim has kept his country of 22 million people in socio-economic stasis: North Dakota, with 640,000 people, has a larger GDP than North Korea.

I wish I could explain my fascination with this country. I think it blows my mind that such a state of affairs is even possible without revolt or collapse. How can millions of people endure decades of isolation, intimidation, control and starvation? In 2008, the U.S. agreed to give 500,000 metric tons of food to North Korea out of essentially humanitarian concerns(along with a healthy dose of desire to get them back to the nuclear non-proliferation bargaining table). What are the people like in North Korea? Are they happy? Do they want a different life? What must happen for change to occur? How bad does it have to get before people will rise up?

Perhaps I take my freedom for granted. Since I was born in the United States, it just seems natural that a government should function the way ours does. Maybe I'm fascinated with North Korea because it reminds me of how precious our way of life is. In our country, those in power aren't deathly afraid of losing power; in fact, it's a certainty that power, once attained, will be stripped away in a matter of several years.

As one who aspires to be ultra-tolerant to those who think differently than I do, I'm torn when I think about North Korea. Is it inappropriate to say that their way of life is wrong? Or is it outright foolishness to not say it? Would a young Korean, living on the outskirts of Pyongyang, chastise me for presuming to know what's best for his country? Or would he beg me to help him find real freedom?

I suppose it's a moot point since it's not likely that I'll ever meet my young, North Korean counterpart. Travel restrictions are so severe that only those on official, state-sponsored visits are allowed to enter the country. Laura Ling and Euna Lee understand this point particularly well today, since they were just sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean labor camp for entering the country without government approval.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Kim Jong-Il has reportedly just named his youngest son to be his successor. I look at the little boy in the picture, and I can't help but wonder what sort of man he will be. Will he be the one to end the cycle of madness? Will he look to the future and see a different North Korea than his father and grandfather saw? Does he understand the burden he's about to take on? Does he see the opportunity that awaits? Or will he stand by and watch as the pillars crumble and the pieces get buried in the sand?

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