Good news from North Korea. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presented North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il with a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan; the dictator treated the diplomat to a spectacular theatrical performance. Rejoice: Peace in East Asia is at hand.
A half year ago, North Korea was a rogue state; now it is a popular destination for members of President Bill Clinton’s administration. Last summer the White House was concerned about North Korea’s missile program. Today it is concerned about the gift Clinton should carry to Pyongyang. The options are staggering: a round-trip ticket to Disneyland? An extra-large pizza? Perhaps a skateboard?
The North Korean leader must like this kind of stuff. Even though he doesn’t allow his subjects to use the Internet, he is an enthusiastic Web-surfer. He has three computers in his office. Wow. Perhaps he considers himself part of Generation X. Would he appreciate a discount coupon for the Gap or Banana Republic?
It would be instructive to know which Web sites Kim patronizes. I suspect he likes something spooky. When one spends an entire life going through secret police reports, one develops taste for mystery and suspense. How about giving him something for Halloween? A bleeding pumpkin, perhaps?
The North Korean regime is, arguably, the most atrocious on earth. No other state was able to organize itself along the lines of George Orwell’s “1984” so efficiently. The ghosts of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler must be hissing in rage: They failed to bring totalitarianism to perfection. Kim and his venerable father, Kim Il Sung, succeeded.
The theatrical event, which Albright was so kind to attend, was not just a tribute to militarism and aggression, embodied in the North Korean regime. It was a Gulag performance. Approximately 100,000 North Koreans had to spend several months rehearsing it, supervised by vicious secret police watchdogs. I wonder how many of them fainted during the performance because of malnutrition and overwork. What do they do with you in North Korea if you faint at the event intended as a gift for the U.S. secretary of state? Do they shoot you on the spot? Or do you rot slowly in a labor camp?
Diplomats have to meet leaders they don’t like. This is their metier. However, they do not have to be nice to monsters. When, in May 1945, the Allies met Nazi dignitaries to sign the capitulation of Hitler’s Germany, they did not treat them to Coke. A basketball is too frivolous a gift to give to a dictator. It is also a waste of taxpayers’ money: Doubtless, Kim’s security team immediately shredded it, looking for a bomb or a bug.
Diplomats like flashy names for their missions. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger invented shuttle diplomacy. It seems Albright is introducing something more sentimental: basketball diplomacy, perhaps? In that case, why not send Cuban President Fidel Castro a teddy bear? Russian President Vladimir Putin could get plastic ninja solders. Saddam Hussein deserves a Barbie doll. And how about candy for Yugoslavia’s former President Slobodan Milosevic? Old Slobo badly needs emotional support now.
One could maintain that Albright’s present was intended as a condescending gesture, the modern-day equivalent of glass beads that were previously given by a European captain to savages somewhere at the edge of the world. Maybe. But Kim outsmarted Albright: With a chuckle, he invited her to his favorite slave performance. Apparently she did not enjoy herself that day, while the dictator enjoyed himself thoroughly.
Albright’s amazing tolerance and overwhelming friendliness will hardly pay off. This is not to say she should have met Kim aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier. Sometimes a carrot pacifies dictators much better than a stick — particularly if their economy is collapsing. However, the visit of the U.S. secretary of state to Pyongyang looked like a soap opera. The transition from stick to carrot was shockingly abrupt, the absence of other parties involved, like Japan and South Korea (to say nothing of Russia and China) too conspicuous.
Also, for months Clinton had been saying that the United States had to launch a multibillion-dollar antimissile program exactly because of North Korea and similar “rogue” states. The abortive launch of the U.S. test missile several weeks ago, according to some estimates, cost $100 million. Now the White House seems to be saying that couple of basketballs will be enough to contain the former “rogue” who is now a Michael Jordan fan. Doesn’t this all look like a soap opera with identities changed and allegiances traded in 45 minutes, including the time allotted for commercials? When did the Clinton administration miscalculate? When it was going to spend billions on star wars, alienating European allies and Russia, or now?
One would expect consistency from a president who has spent almost eight years in the White House. Airspace over Iraq is guarded with zeal, ethnic minorities in the former Yugoslavia are being protected by military intervention but Kim gets smiles and cookies.
One of Albright’s goals was to get North Korea to distance itself from international terrorism. The explosion aboard the USS Cole is recent enough to add significance and drama to the issue. In this context, wasn’t the atmosphere of the visit overly gracious? One got the impression that Albright was too excited by her visit: It felt like, “Gee, I’m the first human on the moon.”
Reportedly, Albright and Kim exchanged e-mail addresses. This is a new way for world leaders to stay in touch. Particularly with those, who have been ignoring international public opinion for several decades. Kim may be the only person in North Korea with access to the Internet. I bet his e-mail address is email@example.com.
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