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  July 14,  

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The Koreas

North Korea: first of the worst

By Aidan Foster-Carter

The good news is that North Korea has won an award. The bad news is that it has no official status. The worse news is - you'd guessed - that this was the kind of competition one would rather not win. Call it a sixth sense, or call me an old cynic. But somehow, as soon as I saw the cover of Newsweek's July 9 issue, I knew the DPRK would be in there. In fat postcard style letters, it read: "Greetings from the World's Worst Countries". And promised "Newsweek's Bottom 10 - the Worst of the Worst".

Well, I knew my team was a contender. Better than that, it turns out. Oops, I mean worse than that. Whatever, we won. There, at the very top of the list of "benighted nations that plumb the depths of state oppression, poverty and all round misery", stands North Korea. Newsweek's summary verdict: "A vast gulag where citizens are forced to worship their 'Great Leader', who lets them die like flies."

Couldn't have put it better myself. Mind you, it was a close run thing. Challenging at No 2 was Afghanistan, which took the prize for worst place to be a woman - thanks to the Taliban's mistaking testosterone for devotion.

Sierra Leone makes No 3, and so on down a list whose members are predictable even if the order may be arbitrary. Since you ask: Sudan, Angola, Tajikistan, Congo (DR), Albania, Haiti and Iraq. The usual suspects. Asia has four of the top 10, including the top two slots.

But is all this anything more than a cheap parlor game - and a tasteless one at that - to titillate readers? Usually I groan each time another paper trots out yet another list. You know the kind of thing. Asia's Top 20 Trends. Asia's 50 Most Powerful People. Asia's 30 Richest Smug 30-somethings - Preferably Cute and Into Trendy Dotcoms - Who We Hope Will Start Buying Our Mag. And so on, ad nauseam.

Well yes actually, I do think this is different. Not only is the topic serious - deadly serious, you might say - but Newsweek on the whole treats it with appropriate gravity. The main problem, of course, is one of incommensurability. (Sorry: once a sociologist, and those eight-syllable words just keep rolling out ...).

Though I affect a chatty style to help the medicine down, I like to think these columns are intellectually serious. I'm sure Asia Times Online readers are intelligent grown-ups, and dumbing down is the curse of the age. So I say it again: incommensurability. Meaning, simply, the problem of comparing like and like.

Or rather, unlike. Terms such as best and worst are, of course, evaluative; so it all depends what you're comparing. Newsweek gets around this with a raft of separate categories. Thus Sierra Leone wins as Africa's cruellest war zone (average life expectancy: 37.4 years). For medical care, best avoid Congo: one doctor for 120,000 people. For kidnapping, don't be rich and Colombian. Others are more trivial. Even my very own United Kingdom gets in - for bad weather, getting worse. But worst? How about Greenland?

But back to North Korea. As well as the overall prize, the DPRK also picks up an individual category award as "Worst Place to Be a Net-head". I find this a bit bizarre. True, as of now only Kim Jong-il and a few others get to surf - you remember the Dear Leader asking Madeleine Albright for her e-mail address - and the country domain .kp remains unused. But, as Newsweek contradictorily admits, IT in general is actually one thing Pyongyang is pretty good at. Good enough for South Koreans to buy and market their translation software, and for Samsung to hire their programmers. What's more, a Seoul entrepreneur has just claimed he'll have satellite Internet access up and running in the North by August. (If I were Bush, I'd fret more about North Korea launching a cyber-attack on Pentagon computers than ever lobbing a rackety rocket in the direction of Alaska. Missile defense, schmissile defense ...)

As for Newsweek's overall award, it's left to the coruscating political journalist Christopher Hitchens - choleric and catholic in his hates: his latest book targets Henry Kissinger as a war criminal - to argue "Why North Korea Is Number One". His verdict: It's "the worst combination of absolute despotism and utter breakdown - a weird coincidence of totalitarianism with state failure". Hitchens visited the DPRK last year, and wrote about it for Vanity Fair. I guess he won't be expecting another entry visa.

But he's got it in one. Each on their own, both the totalitarianism - beyond question the most extreme the world has ever seen - and the misery (a wholly avoidable famine, which may have killed one in eight North Koreans) - are as bad as it gets. But it's the mix that is truly unique. Elsewhere, misery is mostly a case of chaos, sheer underdevelopment, or old-style depredation. It takes special genius - a Great Leader, indeed - to first deliver growth (North Korea was richer than the South until the 1970s); and then, by stubbornly refusing to adapt, have his son march his people into the valley of the shadow of death - while demanding bribes to stop menacing the rest of us with nukes and missiles.

All in all, a pretty lethal cocktail at home and abroad. As Churchill might have put it: Never did so few impose so much on so many, to such evil purpose. One wicked winner. A shameful prize, terribly well earned.

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