LOS ANGELES – I guess I am a sucker for old-fashioned romance. When I heard about the stunning marriage of Kim Jong Un, the young new leader of North Korea, to the lovely Ri Sol Ju, apparently a professional singer, I hurriedly buried the ideological hatchet and grabbed the latest BRIDES magazine to figure out what would be a trendy wedding present for the happy couple.
Let’s face it: Humdrum daily life tends to be so difficult — and not only in very troubled North Korea — that these rare moments of inspired ritual and ceremony are just not to be ignored.
Yes, it was a cruel disappointment not to have been invited to the wedding, presumably in the partygoing capital city of Pyongyang. An invitation must have been hard to get (maybe it was one of the Vegas-style weddings with barely anyone else there). Still, look at it from my standpoint: For more than half as long as new leader Kim Jong Un, 29, has been alive, I have been writing about Asia, America and North Korea’s tenuous relationship with the outside world, not to mention reality.
One thus might have hoped for a measure of respect for an elder like me. But this was not to be. OK — I was one of the millions — well, billions — around the world who was uninvited. So I shouldn’t take it personally and I definitely will not let it get me down.
I am going to imagine that I had been invited but that the immense pressure of university teaching obligations prevented my attendance. Thus, since I am actually feeling guilty about missing the Pyongyang event, I will send the happy Communist couple a proper wedding gift.
But what to send? What do you buy for a couple that may have everything but whose country has next to nothing? Given all those hungry if not starving North Koreans, the usual Tiffany vase or whatever somehow seems not the right gesture. And, by a similar token, a sack of rice would somehow seems, oh, patronizing.
This gift thing required some serious thinking. I’ve been working on the dilemma for a few weeks. Finally, I think I’ve got it.
What the First Couple of North Korea needs is something that not only the entire populace is desperate for but also something that the political leadership lacks too. They need new ideas — even more than rice, not to mention vases.
Or at least they need to start thinking about ideas that are new to them. And so I am putting together a gift bag of books for Pyongyang’s groom Jong Un and bride Sol Ju. What do you think of this selection?
For starters, the book bag includes that old classic “The Road to Serfdom” by the late libertarian Friedrich von Hayek. Sure, it’s a 1940s book but its theme is one that is ageless. It’s that dogmatic overly centralized economic planning, by all-powerful government foolishly believing it is also all knowing, will inevitably produce economic ruin, and eventually fascism or totalitarianism.
Then, as the second gift, I throw in one of my all-time favorites: “Conversations with Stalin,” the unforgettable memoir published in 1969. The author was Milovan Djilas, an intellectual member of the inner circle of Marshal Tito, a thinking-man’s communist who accepted that the further he quietly moved the economy away from the severe statist Soviet model, the better things became for his then-named Yugoslavia. Djilas agreed with this, you see, especially after he got to know Stalin. He started as a true-believing Communist but ended up a doubt-filled critic — a devoted deviationist, I think Moscow used to call it.
North Korea could use some deviation, don’t you think, from all the discredited Communist Party economic nostrums?
Finally the third book in the package for Pyongyang is “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith, published in 1776. It basically makes the case that market economics — which Smith called a “system of natural liberty” — has a much better chance of making life better for people than feudalism, which was then quite prevalent in the world.
I know, three old tomes as gifts. But you see, North Korea is behind the times. A good start with this trio of classics can’t hurt. And next year — on their first wedding anniversary — I’ll send them some newer books. But they need to start with these three — first things first. They are way behind in their reading. The happy couple has a lot of catching up to do.
Journalist Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University and a recent visiting professor at United Arab Emirates University. “Conversations with Ban Ki-moon,” the fourth book in his “Giants of Asia'”series, is due out next month from Marshal Cavendish International.