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Hu's Paradise

China and North Korea's growing list of worries.

6:00 PM, Jul 31, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Personality cults are a traditional fixture of totalitarian communist dictatorships. Generally they become less banal and intrusive on the lives of everyday people as those nations modernize and traverse the onramp to Al Gore's famous Information Superhighway. As it happened in the former USSR and a score of other nations in the last two decades, this modernization process also usually means an end to the communist, one-party regime.

The fact that the two phenomena have gone hand-in-hand in so many places around the world is one of the many worries of the governing elite of the People's Republic of China (PRC). For now, the Middle Kingdom remains kind of a hybrid. China's economic growth and speed of modernization has been nothing less than astounding, but the communist party still has the monopoly on power.

The difference between today's China and that of 30 years ago is that the ideological component of the party's role in society is almost symbolic. China's rulers still maintain the images and monuments of Mao Zedong, but refer to the teachings and sayings of The Great Helmsman as moral and political guidelines for people's everyday lives less and less.

As one would expect, this is largely a generational divide in Chinese society. Making reference to the great Mao's sayings is associated with the old, pre-modern poor PRC, and that being part of the generation of the modern, advanced China generally means ideological agnosticism.

However, China's neighbor North Korea more than makes up for the demise of communist Puritanism in the People's Republic. The god-like status once attributed to Mao Zedong that has long since disappeared in China is alive and well in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The state-mandated worship of the present dictator, Kim Jong-Il, and his deceased father, Kim Il-Sung, puts any of the accolades to Mao to shame.

Not surprisingly, the Orwellian society of North Korea has insured that the country has one of the most failed--and perhaps completely unsalvageable at this point--economies in the world.

If there was ever a case to be made against a one-man, dictatorial state it is the DPRK. While lacking the murderous brutality of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the mismanagement of the country's economy has been no less deadly to the people of North Korea. As many as three million are thought to have perished in famines that peaked in the 1990s, and the situation has been abated only by massive shipments of food aid each year.

The drop in production of grain, which occurred largely during the years that Kim Jong-Il took over after the death of his father, Kim Il-Sung, is unprecedented: from 92 million tons in the 1990 to less than 33 million in 2000. This anemic agricultural output is so inadequate that the nation has become a perennial beggar, what relief workers in Third World nations refer to as a "food aid junkie." Without this aid there is no way that the country could survive.

What the DPRK has been able to produce is a bumper crop of outrageous legends about Kim Jong-Il's magical--nearly superhuman--capabilities and achievements. He is said to have a photographic memory, and to have piloted jet fighters, composed operas, and directed globally acclaimed movies. Among his other improbable and statistically impossible claimed achievements is the legend that he scored eleven holes-in-one in the first round of golf he ever played.

The problem North Korea presents for the government of Chinese President Hu Jintao is roughly analogous to the potential economic refugee dilemma the United States faces with Mexico. A complete breakdown of the country means that China, which borders the DPRK in the north would (along with South Korea on the DPRK's other border) be faced with what has been described as "the mother of all relief operations."

China, South Korea and others have provided food aid to the DPRK for years because tolerating panhandling by Pyongyang (and ignoring that Kim at the same time squanders what little resources he has on nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs) is the lesser of all the potential evils. But this unthinkable disaster of the DPRK's collapsing has come closer to reality this month.