Dispatch

With Friends Like These…

Even the Chinese are finally starting to think their allies in Pyongyang are a little bit crazy.

BEIJING — On Friday, April 5, North Korea warned some foreign embassies in Pyongyang that it couldn't guarantee the safety of their diplomats. On Monday, it suspended operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a business park jointly run by the two halves of the Korean peninsula. But for a sign of just how isolated North Korea has become, look at the Chinese Internet. The Kim family "has driven itself into a corner surrounded by enemies," Ma Dingsheng, a well-known military commentator with more than 375,000 followers, wrote in a Sina Weibo post on Monday. "Over here, China is doing all it can, trying to erect a stage for a six-party talk; over there, Pyongyang is bombing the stage with a nuclear weapon. Even Xi Jinping has come to the end of his patience and berated North Korea for 'throwing a region and the world into chaos for selfish gain,'" Ma wrote, referencing a rare scolding remark from the Chinese president on Sunday.

As Beijing, Pyongyang's sole important ally, shows signs of shifting away from North Korea, the Chinese public also appears to be shedding its sympathy for Pyongyang. On Sina Weibo, China's popular social media platform, reactions toward Kim Jong Un's bellicosity generally range from derision to exasperation. The young dictator is a favorite target of ridicule among Chinese Weibots, who call him "Fatty Kim the Third," an "ungrateful juvenile," as well as the less subtle "crazy and unbalanced psycho."

There's a change in the air. The Chinese public's feelings toward North Korea have typically been a mixture of condescension, distrust, and compassion. While the memory of the Korean War -- in which the two countries fought together against the Americans -- is fading, some Chinese still empathize with their benighted neighbor, who they see as the underdog of the international stage. Some draw parallels between North Korea's position today and China's during the 1960s, when it conducted its first nuclear test, and express admiration for Pyongyang's defiant attitude toward the United States. "North Korea is building nuclear weapons to protect itself, just like China did before," a stay-at-home mother in her 40s, who gave her name as Wang, said in an interview on Monday in a public park in Beijing's university district. "The United States should mind its own business and stop meddling with other countries' affairs."

This view, however, seems to be in the minority, as an increasing number of Chinese are calling for a tougher stance toward North Korea. "China should exercise necessary sanctions against North Korea to deepen its awareness of the importance of external aid and the strategic meaning of the support it receives from China," read a Monday editorial in Global Times, a tabloid newspaper known for its nationalistic views. "China has been carrying out the same policies to support North Korea for so many years, but it has always followed its own script," said Qiao Wei, an editor at Beijing World Publishing Corporation. Qiao speaks fluent Korean, having spent a year of college in 2003 studying the language at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang. "We've been too indulgent, and it's time to give it some pressure."

Deng Yuwen, formerly the deputy editor of the Communist Party journal Study Times, went further in a controversial op-ed in late February in The Financial Times, where he argued that "Beijing should give up on Pyongyang and press for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula." North Korea has shown that it is no longer useful as a buffer against United States influence, Deng maintained, and its fickle behavior makes it more a liability than an asset for China in the long term. (Since the article's publication, Deng has been suspended from his job.)

"I'm worried about the possibility of war," said Pency Tang, a 27-year-old civil servant working at China's Ministry of Transport in Beijing. He comes from Dandong, a city of roughly 2.5 million people sitting on the North Korean border, and his parents still live there. "The new Kim is too young and seems very impulsive. It is difficult to tell what he would do."

Since late March, when North Korea's provocations intensified, Chinese broadcasters have devoted hours of airtime each day to dissecting Kim's latest threats. CCTV News, part of China's state broadcaster, runs programs that speculate on the activities near North Korea's nuclear sites and detail the sophistication of its military weapons. The tone has grown increasingly somber. "North Korea hopes to demonstrate to the United States, Japan, and South Korea that with its military power, the stakes for both negotiation and war will be high," remarked Du Wenlong, a senior researcher with the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, in the news digest program Global Watch. "If the confrontation escalates further, neither side would have the even the smallest space for retreat. They'll both fall off the cliff."

That's not to say that North Korea is an obsession for the average Chinese. On Sina Weibo's trending topic list on Wednesday, North Korea ranked only No. 37 -- below the recent bird flu outbreak and Japan's naming of the anime character Doraemon as its special ambassador for Tokyo's 2020 Olympic bid.

One message, however, has gone viral: an eight-minute segment from The Daily Show -- in which Jon Stewart poked fun at North Korea's doctored propaganda image, backward weaponry, and Kim Jong Un's brash behavior -- has been viewed 2.9 million times. Despite some unfamiliarity with the cultural and political references in the segment, Stewart's video was a hit. (People appear to especially like the Photoshopped picture of a statue of Kim Jong Un having sex with the Statue of Liberty.) Americans have long thought of the dictators in Pyongyang as bizarre and reckless demagogues, as crazy as they are dangerous. But now, it seems that the Chinese are coming around to a similar view -- or at least one of annoyance with a former friend. One viewer commenting on the The Daily Show video nicely encapsulated the changing attitude toward North Korea: "Why is it inviting humiliation like this?"

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

An Election for the Birds

As Venezuelans head to the polls to replace Hugo Chávez, a crazy campaign takes a turn toward the truly bizarre.

CARACAS — Venezuela's caretaker president, Nicolás Maduro, can't be blamed for trying. As he girds himself for the forthcoming presidential election, on Sunday, April 14, Maduro has gone to great lengths to imitate his late predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

As he campaigns across the country, Maduro, 50, constantly wears the same red, yellow, and blue jackets that the late leader wore, and he often breaks out in song à la Chávez while addressing his followers. His stump speeches, which have a Bible-tent revival-meeting flavor, are peppered with the same insults that Chávez threw in the last election, in October, at his challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of Miranda state. Conveniently for Maduro, Capriles is once again the opposition's candidate.

But Maduro, a former bus driver, may have crossed the line when he told followers on April 2 that Chávez, who died March 5 after a two-year battle with cancer, had appeared to him in the guise of a little bird while he was praying in a chapel in the late president's hometown.

"A little bird flew in and circled above me three times," Maduro told supporters. "It landed on a beam in the church and started singing. I looked at it, and I sang to it." The bird flew overheard once more and then left the chapel, said Maduro, who told his backers that he realized that the bird was Chávez, who had given the nod to his presidential bid. The bird told me "the battle starts today. Onward to victory. You have my blessing," Maduro said.

Maduro's comments immediately went viral, leading to a deluge of jokes and, well, tweets. One tweeter wondered whether Venezuelans should leave birdseed rather than lighted candles in front of Chávez's remains. "Chávez isn't a little bird," said Alicia Ramos, 50, a seamstress in the central industrial city of La Victoria. "He is our comandante, and I was frankly offended by Maduro's remarks."

Analysts say that Maduro's avian encounter will likely have little impact on the election, but it is indicative of how crazy the Venezuelan campaign has become. "It was a gaffe but not a catastrophe," said Oscar Schemel, who heads Venezuela's Hinterlaces polling agency. "In a few days it will be forgotten."

Indeed, in a campaign this frenetic and filled with such invective, there's always another incident around the corner. And much of the reason for the vehemence and craziness of this election is its short time span. The official campaign to elect a new Venezuelan leader will have lasted only 10 days when it officially closes on April 11. Unofficially, of course, Maduro and Capriles have been running since Chávez died on March 5. The government has been loath to let people forget Chávez, holding several funeral services and massive rallies that took his remains first to one chapel and then to the military museum where he now rests. Venezuelans continue to visit him in droves.

And in a country where subtlety isn't a virtue, Maduro has made sure that his audiences know that he is the chosen heir. His campaign rallies routinely start with a recording of the former president singing the national anthem, or with a video clip of the late leader proclaiming Maduro his successor in December, before he left for Cuba and his final surgery for cancer. Onstage, Maduro often surrounds himself with children dressed up as founding father Simón Bolívar, or Chávez himself. And there's not a single campaign poster that doesn't directly reference his former boss.

Taking nothing for chance, the state television channels have also gone overboard, showing old video clips of Chávez and a rebroadcast of the best of the late president's Sunday Aló Presidente show, which often ran for hours. Making sure that no one misses the point, one of the country's state television channels commissioned a 40-second animated cartoon detailing Chávez's ascent into heaven. In the cartoon, Chávez is welcomed by such leftist luminaries as Che Guevara, Eva Perón, and former Chilean President Salvador Allende as he enters the pearly gates.

Lest anyone think that Maduro is simply tugging at Venezuelans' heartstrings, he hasn't spared the insults in attacking his challenger. Besides insinuating that the single Capriles is gay (an allegation that the governor has refuted with claims of virility), Maduro also said that the country's opposition is composed of "heirs of Hitler." Ironically, Capriles's maternal grandfather is a Polish Jew who came to the country after World War II.

Still, many Venezuelans seem to be lapping it up. Recent polls show that Maduro has up to a 20 percentage-point lead over his rival. In October, Chávez bested Capriles by a 55-to-44 margin. Maduro's lead has occurred despite soaring crime and inflation that was boosted by his decision to devalue the country's currency by a third in February. If that can't move voters to consider a change of direction, it's going to be a tough road for Capriles.

Since death has made Chávez unassailable, Capriles has focused his campaign on trying to convince voters that Maduro is no Chávez and is unfit to address the country's woes. Capriles repeatedly calls Maduro by his first name on the campaign stump and accuses the rival and members of his government of being opportunists who have socked away millions of dollars while professing to be revolutionaries.

"They talk of socialism, but it's only on the surface," Capriles said on April 3. "Look how they live, what they wear, what cars they drive. They're only skin-deep socialists." For his part, Maduro has brushed off Capriles's digs, saying that his opponent is a member of the country's bourgeoisie and is "obsessed" with him.

Meanwhile, lost in the drama of the 10-day campaign has been the revelation that a functionary of Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) had somehow acquired the code to start the country's voting machines. The case is now under investigation by the National Electoral Council, whose board is controlled by Maduro supporters. "What does it mean that a PSUV tech would have the start-up code, and what else might they have that we don't know about?" asked David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

But while the opposition fears some high-tech monkeying around with eventual balloting, for now Maduro is resorting to a much more old-school method of securing the vote. During a recent campaign stop in Puerto Ayacucho, he told crowds that a centuries-old curse -- stemming from a decisive 1567 battle in which Spanish conquistadors defeated local indigenous fighters -- would afflict voters who didn't cast their ballots for him.

"If anyone in the country votes against Nicolas Maduro, he is also voting against himself," Maduro warned. "He is falling under the curse of Maracapana." In this crazy Venezuelan election, anything is possible.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images