A few years ago, National Geographic dispatched a documentary camera crew to North Korea to highlight the efforts of Nepalese opthamalogist and surgeon Dr. Sunduk Ruit, who performed small-incision cataract surgeries on roughly a thousand North Koreans.
Ruit has completed some 100,000 of these surgeries across the world as part of a charitable endeavor.
I was struck by what followed. Sometime after these surgeries were completed, the patients assembled in a large, shabby auditorium for the post-operative checkup. As soon as their bandages were removed, a remarkable thing followed: All of them, apparently without exception and with no prompting, marched to the front of the crowd, bowed before large portraits of Kim il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, effusively praising and thanking them for the surgery, seemingly indifferent to the indispensable role Ruik played in restoring their sight.
Perhaps none of these patients ever entertained the thought that the appalling material circumstances and nutritional deficiencies that contributed to their cataracts stemmed from the despotic exploitation of their rulers, the Kims.
This bizarre incident prompted some thoughts about the strange symbiosis that has prevailed over the last 70 years between ruler and ruled in the Hermit Kingdom.
The simple fact that there are so many wretched, ignorant masses in North Korea largely account for why this strange dynastic symbiosis exists in the first place. I think the strong case can be made that despotisms survive only where the majority of people are ignorant of the real factors behind their suffering. And this partly accounts for why the Kims so wantonly indulge their opulence amidst their countries appalling squalor.
Only a few days ago, the current Kim dynast, Kim Jong-un, undertook his first official international trip, traveling in his late father’s lavishly equipped train. The train functions essentially as an American Air Force One on rails — part mobile state palace, part command command center. lavishly equipped with conference rooms, an audience chamber, bedrooms and, of course satellite phone connections and flat-screen televisions.
Reflecting on a trip to Russia in 2011 by the previous dynastic despot, Kim Jong-il, a Russian official recalled that his heavily armored 90-car train, which was proceed by a reconnaissance train and followed by a security train, was conducted by beautiful women and sumptuously equipped with Russian, Chinese, Korean and French cuisines.
American and Western European heads of state have never traveled so opulently.
Whenever I read about all of this conspicuous consumption associated with the Kims, I’m reminded of ancient Egypt where a handful of royals lived in unimaginable splendor amid the toiling masses who struggled to eke out a meager subsistence or starved trying.
And bear in mind that we are talking of a dynasty that governs a country with an economy roughly the size of the central African nation of Gabon, albeit a Gabon with an incipient nuclear arsenal and a cyber-terrorist sector.
From my Western perspective, it seems remarkable to me that a dynasty ruling a country as desperately poor as North Korea would deign to travel in train more lavishly equipped than, say, Adolph Hitler’s Fuhrer train. But then this glaring anomaly explains everything about North Korea.
Kim’s opulence is intimately bound up in his country’s abject poverty: Without the Kim family’s obstinate pomposity, North Korea would be seen for what it truly is: a squalid Third World hellhole soldiering on amid one of the world’s most prosperous, economically vibrant regions.
In their own perverse way, the Kims, by employing a large army, nuclear saber rattling and cyber warfare and, of course, lavish lifestyles, provide the bedraggled masses with their own sense of majesty and omnipotence. In the midst of all their suffering and squalor they are comforted by the myth that they inhabit one of the world’s most significant nations, a nuclear armed behemoth governed by geniuses with divine attributes who routinely defy the most evil power in the world and the greatest existential threat to their country: the United States.
At least, that seems to be the theory, one that, until recently, appears to have worked reasonably well.
Western monarchies have developed their own symbiotic relationships with their people. But compared to Korea, these have been relatively benign, if not largely beneficial to both ruler and ruled.
Yet, as symbioses go, the North Korean monarchy — and that, in effect, is what the Kim dynasty is, a de facto monarchy — is a strange one indeed, the strangest one in modern history, fraught with all manner of instability and risk, not only to the Kims and to the people of North Korean but also to humanity at large.
Yet, somehow they — the Kims and their subjects — manage to soldier on.