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Trouble in North Korea

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No wannabe totalitarian regime in the world is quite so ripe for ridicule as North Korea. I traveled there some years back and marveled over the Ryugyong Hotel, a 105-story monstrosity nicknamed the “hotel of doom.” Due to gross design and construction flaws, it’s sat unoccupied in downtown Pyongyang for two decades. It captures the regime perfectly: monolithic and impressive from a distance, laughable up close and fundamentally unhinged in concept, it teeters there awaiting the day when it is inevitably imploded to make space for something better attuned to reality.

Today the Washington Post brings us synopses of South Korean press accounts about the latest rumblings in the Kim family’s lair.

Amid accounts of starvation, food shortages in the army and runaway inflation, senior economic officials in North Korea have been fired in recent days, according to reports in the South Korean media. The dismissals were reported during a week in which North Korean leader Kim Jong Il made a rare acknowledgment of his state’s failure to provide its citizens with an acceptable standard of living.

“I am most heartbroken by the fact that our people are living on corn,” Kim said in a report monitored by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. “What I must do now is feed them white rice, bread and noodles generously.” Kim made a similar statement in January, mentioning white rice and meat soup. But the likelihood of his being able to improve nutrition in his country in the short term seems small. South Korean officials have said that North Korea could face severe food shortages this spring because of a poor harvest last fall.

The crises any government faces are rarely the ones it prepares for. But something tells me that Kim Jong Il’s clamoring for attention on the international stage is about to resume. It may take the form of kidnapping journalists or movie starlets, test firing a missile, or something still more sinister. But it’s time, once more, to be on guard.

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