National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

North Koreans express cynicism and enthusiasm over nuclear crisis

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

The fate of the world hangs on two volatile characters of doubtful sanity.

“I went from VERY successful businessman, to T.V. Star, to President of the United States (on my first try),” Donald Trump tweeted earlier this month. “I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius … and a very stable genius at that!”

People don’t describe themselves as “very stable,” except defensively. Doubts swirl, among layman and expert.

“Trump is a narcissist, paranoid and demonizes anyone who opposes him,” Dr. John Gartner, a former assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the online magazine Salon in November. “Trump has an antisocial personality and exhibits signs of sociopathy.”

He added: “I don’t think people have any idea how close we are to the point of no return. I think there is an 80 percent chance he’s going to push that nuclear button. Why? No. 1, Trump is a malignant narcissist. As far as I know, I cannot recall a single malignant narcissist in history who did not start a major war.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump’s opposite number in the nuclear crisis currently unfolding, is generally regarded as sane. “(He) is a very rational actor,” Yong Suk Lee of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Korea Mission Center told a CIA-sponsored intelligence conference in October. “Kim Jong Un wants what all authoritarian rulers want … to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”

That’s possible but not self-evident. Shukan Bunshun magazine, in a special issue devoted exclusively to North Korea, presents a different view. In a report written by journalist Yoshihiro Makino, Kim comes across as erratic, alcoholic and in perpetual fear for his life — the last perhaps accounting for the first two and not, on the face of it, irrational. Men of his stamp make enemies. He seldom appears in public and increasingly, Makino says, takes refuge in wine and whisky — the very finest, notwithstanding tightening sanctions and the poverty-ridden condition of the country at large. Citing unnamed North Korean sources, Makino portrays Kim and his immediate entourage partying “several times a week,” with Kim’s moods as he drinks veering from cheerful to ominously silent to explosive for no apparent reason. Absolute power does that to people. On the verge of passing out, he’ll suddenly snap, “Meeting tomorrow, first thing,” only to wake up next morning astonished to find his aides in breathless attendance.

The Trump-Kim dialogue to date — “little rocket man”; “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” — is on a level that belies what’s at stake, stoking fears they neither know nor care. What is Kim thinking? Trump’s compulsive tweeting gives us a bit of a window on his mind, streaked and opaque but better than nothing. Kim? Nothing. We know what intelligence agents such as Yong tell us they think they know — no more. His own people wouldn’t even know that much.

They have, of course, their opinions, their feelings, forged in an environment all but unknown, scarcely imaginable, to the outside world. What are they thinking? South Korea-based journalist Park Sun Min, for his contribution to Shukan Bunshun’s package, last fall interviewed several residents of Pyongyang, a relatively privileged enclave. They talk, or seem to talk, freely, though (naturally) anonymously.

Two homemakers — one 35, the other 55 — represent opposing poles of cynicism and enthusiasm.

“I sell clothes in a market held every 10 days,” says the first. “It’s hard. I can’t sell much. It’s all I can do to earn 10,000 won (¥140) in a day.” In the old days — before North Korea began nuclear testing in 2006 — she did better, but then sanctions bit, shutting down her access to the high-quality, high-priced Japanese clothing that drew eager and well-heeled buyers. The Chinese-made items that must do as substitutes do less well.

“The men, including my husband,” she says, “have no work. We call them bow-wow dogs — they stay home and ‘guard the house.’ The state won’t give them work. If it did, it would have to give them rations. All the same, the state make us pay taxes, on various pretexts.”

Food prices up, income down — that’s life since the first sanctions; more so now as sanctions tighten, with no end in sight. Does her country’s emergence as a nuclear power make up for daily privation? “Nuclear weapons will kill the enemy, but they’re killing us, too,” she says, “so why is that person” — Kim — “doing these things?” Her bitterness seems to flare as she speaks. “War would be better, even if the Americans die and the Japanese die in it. As for us, whether we die this way (little by little, day by day) or that way (in a war), it’s the same.”

Her last word: “Even if they strengthen sanctions, the leaders will go on living as before. It’s only us ordinary people who are dying.”

“I saw it on TV,” says the older woman, meaning the November missile test that seemed to place the continental U.S. within range. “It’s wonderful. It made me so happy.”

“Don’t you think,” Park asks her, “that the money nuclear development costs would be better spent on food for the people?

“People who stay home and do their housework don’t think about that.”

But she does think about it, at least sometimes: “America is really bad. If I had it under my foot, I’d squash it like that! All the women here call America ‘dog,’ ‘pig.’ If it comes to war, we’re not afraid. We have Chairman Kim Jong Un, so there’s nothing to worry about.”

“What’s the situation at school?” Park asks a 28-year-old university student.

“Now (September) it’s the agricultural ‘struggle period'” — students assigned to the countryside for 40 days of harvest work. He seems to have been near the Chinese border. “I can do some bartering with the Chinese and make a bit of the money I need for school.”

On nuclear testing, “the professors don’t talk about it.” Among the students, he figures 60 percent are for, 40 percent against. He’s against. “Missile launches don’t put rice on the table.”

A 16-year-old high school girl feels differently: “I’m proud of my country.” If it’s war, “I’m not afraid. We’ll win.” And Kim “is like a father to us.”

The world waits, watches, listens — on tenterhooks.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”