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A history of wishful thinking would be a valuable aid to studying international relations. Arab liberals and secularists demonstrate against dictators, and the BBC and Channel 4 herald a new democratic dawn. Instead, the patient and steely Muslim Brotherhood comes to power and "Morsellini" neuters the army and then Egypt's courts. Cuba? Property laws are slightly relaxed, and before you know it, Western optimists are predicting life after the Castros. Syria? Assad will fall like Gaddafi, except he has a lethal airforce and Iranian and Russian backing.

And then there's the hemline theory of history. The wife of North Korea's dictator Kim Jong-un, Ri Sol-ju, shows a bit more leg and flaunts a Dior handbag, while her husband larks about with the British ambassador at an amusement park. The hermit kingdom must be on the verge of collapse if Coca-Cola is available in Pyongyang. Except it isn't, according to the company. 

 North Korea is not going to collapse any time soon. It has a powerful military that consumes a third of the budget. Leaving aside nuclear weapons, it has 13,000 artillery pieces that could blast Seoul in about 45 seconds. Carefully calibrated nuclear sabre-rattling—firing missiles including ICBMs over the neighbours—enables the regime to extort the food shipments that alleviate mass starvation. Malnutrition is hard to disguise: the average North Korean seven-year-old is eight inches shorter and 22lbs lighter than his South Korean equivalent. The family dictatorship has so many secret police agencies it cannot keep track of them. If one of the pictures of Kim Il-sung each citizen must display at home is dusty or off-centre, it's six months in a labour camp. Punishment is transgenerational too. Some long-dead ancestor who collaborated with the Japanese can result in an entire family being incarcerated. The 26,000 exiles living in Seoul are not safe either. A North Korean assassin was recently captured with a Bond-like arsenal of "Q"-type equipment, including pens which deliver lethal toxins.

Chinese investors who have given up on the "liberalised" economic zones Pyongyang established south of the Yalu are a revealing source for how the regime operates. Most have left after experiencing North Korean shakedowns. They say that about three million people live a conspicuously better life in the "Republic of Pyongyang", with access to luxury goods, nice apartments and good restaurants. This satisfied elite keeps the Kim dynasty in power.

But the Kims know that ideology counts too. As in Russia, where Putin combines pseudo-18th-century costume balls for the oligarchs with Orthodoxy and crude chauvinism for the masses, so the North Koreans have concocted their own peninsular story. 

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January 26th, 2013
12:01 AM
Michael Burleigh, always thorough, always forthright, ever willing to eschew polite fictions for stark truths...all told in decent prose. Grand article, one to be read and re-read.

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