North Korea has promised that it
will be a "strong and prosperous" nation by April 15, 2012. It's
doubtful whether anyone inside or outside North Korea actually believes the country could possibly reach its goal this weekend; afterwards the regime will probably just move the goalposts.
Even if North Korean leaders had delivered what they promised, its citizens would have received a thin soup of interminable "glorify the leader" musicals, basic higher education, and hot sugar water on a cold day. Here's what represents unattainable prosperity to a country whose people
have lived on the brink of starvation for most of the last two decades.
Although North Koreans might not be able to afford consumer products, in a prosperous society they would never lack for the leisure of entertainment. The
government is lavishing resources in 2012 on North Korea's performing arts
sector: building new theaters, sending ensembles abroad, and holding mega-concerts of
new works intended to glorify Kim Jong Il's memory. North Korean propaganda at
various times has already called musicians, sculptors,
artists, and writers in Pyongyang the most loyal servants of Kim Jong Un (possibly
because arts were one of the few subjects where the
youngest Kim is said to have scored high grades in his
school). Unless one's idea of entertainment is a laundry list of Kim family exploits, the shows can be a bit tedious.
3,000 soldiers and police officers are working around the clock to finish
these 3,000 new apartment units, the showcase of a 2012 renovation in Pyongyang. Mainly being built for regime elites, they allow North Korea's aspirational class something to strive for: the units reportedly offer 24-hour the rare luxury of 24-hour hot water.
Before Kim Jong Il died, the powerful
new Organization and Guidance Department promised
that 24-hour electricity would be available in the capital by the New Year to
"stabilize people's lives," according to sources inside North Korea. Power shortages, unfortunately, remain all too common.
Kim Il Sung's promise that all North
Koreans would be able to eat meat soup and sleep under tile roofs by the 1960s
rings especially hollow today; sadly, Kim Jong Un allegedly said it would take him three
years to get the North Korean consumer
economy back to the level of the 1960s. Hunger in North Korea remains widespread. In late December, state propaganda
praised the youngest Kim for providing
cold mourners with hot sugar water.
North Korean youth are supposed to enjoy a "fine socialist educational system." Unfortunately, many students apparently have
not been in class for nearly a year, subject to very onerous manual
labor requirements related to building a Pyongyang that appears prosperous. It's a vicious
cycle that defectors say happens in part because the
regime fears protests.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
a country with a GDP the size of Zimbabwe's uses it to build the world's
fifth-largest military, some imbalances are bound to occur. Life remains spartan
at best for most members of the Korean People's Army (KPA), but this week's missile launch -- and Kim Jong
Un's busy routine of honoring army units with on-site inspections -- indicate food
will likely continue to flow to the KPA, so North Korean people can
be proud their army has "no
limit to [its] striking intensity and range."
Korean asserts that growth in the monument sector
with actual material prosperity. Yesterday, North Korean officials unveiled a 25-meter tall statue to Kim Jong Il, with more planned. In the realm of bringing oversized monuments of their leaders to the people, North Korea has succeeded.
The buildup to this weekend's sixth
Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, has been rife with drama.
Ecuador's left-wing president, Rafael Correa, announced that he will skip the 34-country conference
because it excludes Cuba, which does not belong to the Organization of American
States (membership requirement: democracy). The presidents of El Salvador,
Honduras, and Nicaragua sparred publicly with the president of Guatemala over a drug legalization proposal. And not to be outdone, Cuba's Fidel Castro ridiculed U.S. President Barack Obama's reported plan to
wear a guayabera -- a light tropical dress shirt originating in Cuba -- at the
Sure, there have been some
successes. The inaugural Summit of the Americas in 1994 marked a high point of goodwill between the United States
and Latin American countries (Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and his like-minded
allies had yet to assume power) and launched a proposal -- never realized -- for a free-trade
bloc stretching from "Alaska to Argentina." The third Summit of the
Americas in 2001 produced the Inter-American
Democratic Charter, which emphasized the importance of democratic
institutions in the Americas.
But the summits are more often
remembered for temper tantrums and mischievous antics by government leaders --
with Chávez in particular at the center of many of the tempests. If past Latin
American summits are any guide, we should expect some serious sparks to fly in
Cartagena. Here are some of the least auspicious moments from summits past.
What: Ibero-American Summit
Where: Asunción, Paraguay
Meltdown: The annual gathering of leaders from the Spanish- and
Portuguese-speaking nations of Europe and the Americas was marred by the
absence of several heads of state, including Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and
Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who claimed they had to prepare for
an upcoming -- and implicitly more important -- G-20 summit in France.
The poor attendance -- and surely
the optics of their king and prime minister mingling with lower level officials
-- enraged Spanish news outlets, which deemed the summit a
demoralizing failure. "The summit has become redundant for Latin American
powers, who already have their own voice in other, more global forums," La Voz de Galicia lamented.
Not only that, but Correa, who
booted a World Bank representative from the country in 2007 after the
organization withheld an $100 million loan, stormed out of a speech by a World Bank official. "In
an Ibero-American forum, why do I have to listen to lectures from the World
Bank vice president, who openly blackmailed my country?" he asked,
interrupting her presentation. Bolivia's Evo Morales stuck it to Spain shortly
after the summit, suggesting that the forum was in its death throes and that
Latin American countries shouldn't be "held accountable every year to the
king" of Spain.
THE SHOUTING MATCH
What: Rio Group Summit
Where: Cancún, Mexico
Meltdown: This summit was supposed to produce yet another intergovernmental group
that would exclude Canada and the United States and promote Latin American
unity. But regional harmony was not in the cards. Chávez and then-Colombian
President Álvaro Uribe -- already at odds over a U.S.-Colombian military
agreement and alleged Venezuelan support for Colombian guerrillas -- clashed at
lunch, with Uribe complaining about a Venezuelan trade embargo on Colombia and
Chávez accusing Uribe of trying to assassinate him. The conversation only got worse
as Cuba's Raúl Castro and Mexico's Felipe Calderón rushed to intervene:
Uribe: Be a man!... You're brave speaking at a distance, but a
coward when it comes to talking face to face.
Chávez: Go to hell!
"I think that if the table
hadn't been there as an obstacle, and our friends weren't sitting right there,
that President Uribe physically would've attacked me," Chávez later reflected. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable provided more color on the
incident, noting that Venezuelan security officials had tussled with Mexican
security guards in an effort to assistChávez, and that the summit as a
whole was "the worst expression of Banana Republic discourse."
THE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE PRESENT
What: Summit of the Americas
Where: Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
Meltdown: Is there such a thing as an underhanded gift? If so, that's
what Chávez gave Obama when he presented him with Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina, or "The Open
Veins of Latin America," during their first meeting after Obama's
election. The book, which, within days of the exchange, became a
bestseller, criticizes the long history of European and U.S. meddling
in the region. Chávez's inscription in the Spanish-language copy? "For
Obama, with affection." (The goodwill didn't last long.)
Later in the summit, Daniel Ortega
expressed his disapproval of the United States more directly. The Nicaraguan
president embarkedon a 52-minute rant about American imperialism and
"Yankee troops," though he conceded that Obama was only a few months
old during the Bay of Pigs invasion. "I'm very grateful that President
Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months
old," Obama later joked.
Here's some raw video of Chávez's
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
THE ‘BATHROOM BREAK'
What: Rio Group Summit
Where: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Meltdown: We've already seen that Chávez, Correa, and Uribe can be
somewhat volatile. Now imagine putting them all in the same room and asking
them to shake hands and make up over a brewing border crisis. When the South American leaders met
at this summit following a Colombian military attack on rebels camped out in
Ecuador, a televised debate grew so rancorous that Correa walked out of the
session for what an aide said was a bathroom break. When he returned, he had a message for
Uribe. "Your insolence is doing more damage to the Ecuadorean people than
your murderous bombs," he proclaimed.
There were other theatrics (Uribe
brandished documents that he claimed established links between Correa and the
rebels, while Chávez trotted out the mother of the rebels' most prominent
hostage, Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, to confront Uribe), but in the
end the three leaders shook hands and resolved the dispute -- sort of. Check
out the steely look Correa gives Uribe as they shake hands (beginning at 0:25):
RICARDO HERNANDEZ/AFP/Getty Images
THE ROYAL SMACKDOWN
What: Ibero-American Summit
Where: Santiago, Chile
Meltdown: This was yet
another summit in which attendees seemed to have not gotten the memo about the
feel-good theme -- in this case, "social cohesion." As Chávez repeatedly interrupted
then-Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and called former
Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar a "fascist" who was less
human than a snake, Spain's King Juan Carlos lost his nerve. "Why don't
you shut up?" he fumed -- in an outburst that quickly inspired ringtones, branded
T-shirts, and imaginative headlines such as "King
of Spain v King of Spin."
Zapatero proceeded to issue a
rousing call for decorum, only for Nicaragua's Ortega to jump in and defend
Chávez -- at which point the exasperated king stormed out of the room. The
summit also featured a war of words between Argentina and Uruguay over a paper
Here's a clip of the heated exchange
between Chávez and the king:
THE ANTI-BUSH DIATRIBE
What: Summit of the Americas
Where: Mar del Plata, Argentina
Meltdown: Chávez never minced words when it came to George W. Bush,
once telling the United Nations that Bush was the
"devil" and that the "the smell of sulfur" still lingered
after the U.S. president's General Assembly address. A year earlier, at a
regional gathering in Mar del Plata, the Venezuelan strongman helped engineer
the defeat of a U.S.-supported free trade zone for the Americas and rallied a
soccer stadium packed with 25,000 people against U.S. imperialism in an alternative
"One by one, Bush's puppets
have fallen" in Latin America," Chávez told the crowd, in a speech that lasted more than two hours. Bush, for his part, promised
to be "polite" if he ran into Chávez. But just check out Bush's
expression (not to mention Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's) above as he
listened to Chávez speak during the summit's first session. When the U.S.
president left Argentina before the end of the conference, Chávez declared
victory. "The man went away wounded," he crowed. "You could see
defeat on his face."
You can see footage of Chávez's
address to the people's summit in this clip from his weekly television show, Aló
Presidente (beginning at 4:30):
With a cancer-stricken Chávez
expected to make only a brief appearance at this year's Summit of the Americas --
and the fiery Rafael Correa boycotting it altogether -- the upcoming gathering
may be relatively subdued. But don't underestimate the Venezuelan president's
ability to whip up controversy in a matter of hours.