Why North Korea Is Number One

A couple of months ago, the White House held a screening of a movie about the life of Varian Fry, the great prewar humanitarian who rescued innumerable artists and writers from Nazified Europe. Several current leaders of humanitarian and relief organizations were invited and one of them was presented to President George W. Bush. "What," inquired the chief executive, "is the worst country in the world?" "Congo, Mr. President," came the reply. "Oh yes--I had that Paul Kabila visit me recently. So, what's the second worst country?" "Afghanistan, Mr. President." "Right--where them loonies shoot up the statues."

Picking the worst country in the world is not unlike choosing rogue nations--a parlor game that is open to interpretation, whether informed or not.What goes to make up a real hellhole? The chief ingredients are tyranny, chaos and corruption, but in most countries, the lack of one tends to mitigate the presence of the others. An authoritarian state can bring stability and order; on the other hand, chaotic countries are more likely to have governments that are not very good at repression.

In Baghdad I have been sickened by the pervasive feeling of fear while feeling reasonably confident that, if I was knocked down by a car, an ambulance would come. In the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, I realized there would be nobody to call. Some dictatorships, like China, are tough on crime as well as any form of disorder; Tiananmen Square on an average day is very controlled but also very safe. Whereas in Zimbabwe, which used to be my favorite African nation, the state now uses criminal elements for "law enforcement." Nor should one forget the systems and societies that are perfectly open, unless you happen to be a member of the wrong "race" or religion.

Yet there is one place on earth that is home to all these forces of misery: the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Into this tiny space has been packed the worst combination of absolute despotism and utter breakdown--a weird coincidence of totalitarianism with state failure.

It's the totalitarian aspect that strikes you first, as it did me when I visited North Korea last winter. Fifty years of ultra-Stalinism have made the very idea of a private life almost unthinkable. Every move and utterance is planned and scripted, with an entire people endlessly mobilized for a cult of hysterical adulation. The president of the country is a dead man named Kim Il Sung, whose rotund visage glares from every wall. All other official leadership posts are held by his son Kim Jong Il, whose birth is said to have been attended by miraculous signs and portents. All films, all books, all newspapers and all radio and television broadcasts are about either the Father or the Son. Everybody is a soldier. Everybody is an informer. Everybody is a unit. Everything is propaganda.

There are no minorities in North Korea, but that doesn't mean its society isn't intensely chauvinistic. Children are drilled to think of Japanese and Americans, in particular, as monstrous. It is forbidden for citizens to have any contact with the handful of foreign visitors. One of my party-appointed guides told me that South Korea would need to be liberated very soon by the North, before intermarriage and exposure to outsiders could mongrelize the South Korean people.

The old justification for the Stalinist forced-march system was that at least it led to development. But even in Pyongyang, the capital city which is reserved for approved citizens, one can see that this excuse doesn't work. Neither does anything else; the place is stalled and hungry and subject to constant blackouts. There are no cars on the streets; there is no construction except of tawdry shrines to the Holy Family. A very small window of dollar bribery has opened up in recent years, but there's nothing to buy and no black market. Corruption at the leadership level is exorbitant, with palaces and limos and (a special obsession of Kim Jong Il's) megalomaniacal movie projects. But there's no trickle down, no enlivening parallel economy.

Out in the countryside and in provincial towns, I saw people scavenging individual grains from the fields and washing themselves in open sewers. On the almost deserted roads, animals do a good deal of the hauling. Domestic pets are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps most have been eaten, for the fact is that North Korea is a famine state and, in many of its provinces, a vanishing state. The few aid workers who remain tell of orphanages crammed with wizened babies. Nobody knows the death toll--the best guess is between 1.5 and 2 million--but in addition a generation of physically and mentally stunted children has been "fathered" by the "Dear Leader." Well-attested rumors of cannibalism have filtered across the border to China, where a Korean-speaking minority has lately been augmented by refugees so desperate that they will risk shooting in order to brave the river. A system where you can't live but you can't leave is the definition of hell.

I was shown a film shot secretly in the North. It had footage of deserted towns, empty factories, wandering and neglected children and untilled fields. Most reports agree that the country's once productive coal mines have been allowed to flood, and that there are no pumps that can be brought to bear. As if in mockery of all this dereliction and misery, the regime invests in building rockets for export--perhaps the only functioning part of the economy and a further guarantee (as if hysterical xenophobia were not enough) that international help will be hard to come by.

I think that covers everything. On the one hand, the country is marked by rigid and fanatical militarization, complete censorship and total party control. On the other, it continues to be plagued by galloping underdevelopment, scarcity and social implosion. No food and no culture. No future and no past. Just an unbearable present, both predictable and unstable. It can't get any worse than this, except that it will. The envelope, please...