That 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 24/7. Thought: 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 was 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).
On 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.