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UnknownThat was the question that sent me to North Korea recently and here is what I found:

December 16, 2011:  Some kids stopped me in an alleyway.  Hey Joe, buy our gum, they pleaded.  Of course I’ll buy you gum, I replied.  No, no, buy our gum, not buy us gum, they cried.  I bought five packs of Wiggly’s Sportmint that tasted foul and crumbled when I chewed it.  Thought:  The economy is not so bad that the people have no gum, but it is a miserable failure at reverse engineering.  We still have the gum edge.

I was walking down Death to the Running Dogs of the Imperialist War-Mongering Powers Avenue, when I saw a line stretching for blocks from the Cabbage Bank.  Aha, I surmised, a run on cabbage!  But, no, it was simply an orderly deposit line.  Thought:  All quiet on the cabbage front.

I turned on my hotel-room TV — I Love Lucy and Howdy Doody 24/7Thought:  They still admire us, but with a narrow, dated view of who we really are.

December 17:  I was having breakfast on the top floor of my hotel, Pyongyang’s tallest building.  A man at a nearby table shouted Corn Flakes, got up, opened the nearest window, jumped out, climbed back in to pick up his hat, jumped out again, bought a newspaper, climbed back in again, and finished his breakfast.  Thought:  Tallest doesn’t necessarily mean tall.  And there may be problems in dry breakfast cereals.

That evening, I attended a high school graduation party where a group decided to TP a tree outside the principal’s apartment.  But there was no tree and anyway they only had one square of toilet paper.  Thought:  There may be problems in the forestry and toilet paper sectors.

December 18:  Lucy and Howdy were replaced on my TV by pictures of meadows in the Austrian Alps, with Mozart’s Requiem playing in the background.  Thought:  Maybe they don’t love Lucy, but they certainly seem to admire Austria.

The same kids stopped me again.  Hey Joe, buy us gum, they cried.  I already bought your gum, I said.  No, no, buy us gum, not buy our gum.  I gave them back all but one pack of Wiggly’s Sportmint.  Thought:  Sudden downturn in the gum sector.

I wanted to have dinner in my room, but as loud as I shouted into the tin can, I couldn’t connect with anyone.  When I went to check, I noticed that the waxed string running from my room along the hallway wall was cut.  Thought:  Trouble in the room service sector.  And a pack of lousy gum is no substitute for a heaping bowl of kimchi.

December 19: Something was clearly going on:

Government offices, and the bank, the school, and the movie theater were closed.  People who had clothes were rending them; those without clothes had to rent-to-rend.  Thought:  The notoriously capricious regime must have canceled Christmas.

I was forced to hand in my paper money that had a picture of a guy with a really ugly suit and a strange hairdo, in exchange for new bills, possibly printed on toilet paper, with a picture of this fat young guy in an even uglier suit and an even worse hairdo.  Thought:  Explanation for toilet paper shortage.  And indications of weakness in the tailoring sector.

December 19 – 28:  Nothing to report.

December 28:  Went for a walk.  Death to the Running Blah Blah Blah Avenue was lined with people.  There was a parade with lots of cars, led by a mid-1970s black Lincoln Continental, with the new-bills fat guy walking alongside.  On the roof of the Lincoln wasUnknown-1 a really big cargo carrier, I mean big enough to carry a body.  Thought:  Like Americans, North Koreans love a parade, especially with classic American luxury cars, and they’re mad for skiing (that’s undoubtedly what the roof carrier was for, once the parade was over).

Conclusions:  There is weakness in some parts of the economy (forestry; tailoring), ambiguity in others (paper – toilet; Flakes – Corn), elasticity in others (gum), and strength in still others (cabbage).  Room service and Christmas observance are unpredictable.

Still, there is a residual fondness for the U.S., evidenced in vintage Lincolns and classic TV shows, which predicts well for the future of U.S. – North Korean relations (though we should be cautious about Austrians wearing lederhosen or powdered wigs).

images-1On the question of Kim Jong Il’s health, I saw no evidence of anything amiss.  If he should deteriorate or, God forbid, die, we can console ourselves that his likely heir — Kim Jong Un (photo, left) — studied in the west (Switzerland) and worships Michael Jordan.  It is on such bases of stability and amity that U.S. – North Korea relations will continue to flourish.

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