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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Not Satire

by | July 1st, 2011 | 10:23 am
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We periodically both publish and engage in satire about North Korea. It is a kind of gallows humor, we know, but it provides at least some comic relief from the travails of being a North Korea watcher.

However, we have decided to start a new periodic feature called “Not Satire”: stories that qualify for entry into Ripley’s “Believe it or Not.” We have no fewer than three entries this week.

The American women beat the North Koreans in the FIFA World Cup this week. The reason? According to the North Korean coach in a post-game interview caught by The Guardian, four strikers and the goalie were hit by lightening during a training match in early June. “The physicians said the players were not capable of participating in the tournament,” said Kim. “But until the very last minute they gave their best.”

Next up, there is now credible information coming out of Pyongyang—including from the British Ambassador and personal contacts of ours—that some universities Pyonyang are going to be closed through next April. The stated reason? To engage in manual labor to prepare for major celebrations of the centenary of the late leader Kim Il Sung’s birthday. What better way to celebrate becoming a “strong and prosperous nation” than to close your universities?

As with anything North Korean, there are of course alternative hypotheses. Students have been mobilized for agricultural work in the past, particularly during the summer, and there may be a political motive: to disperse potentially restive students in the run-up to the celebrations. But maybe closing the universities is not such a bad idea. It is not at all clear whether these deteriorating and highly-politicized institutions are creating or destroying human capital.

Our final piece of Not Satire is aimed less at North Korea than at the hapless United Nations system. North Korea has assumed the presidency of the UN Conference on Disarmament. To be sure, the presidency rotates—with only three month terms–and even the supporters of the conference note that the time frame is inadequate to master what little relevant business the Conference conducts. Nonetheless, as with North Korea’s participation in UN human rights bodies, the news demonstrates pretty clearly the limits of universal multilateralism.