Pyongyang, North Korea
Whichever of the two losers assumed the presidency of these United States mattered not at all in terms of construction of a "Star Wars," or Ballistic Missile Defense, system, since both promised to begin work on it. Indeed, this agreement may well form part of the much-anticipated healing process between the two party oligarchies. (Perhaps Bush will retain the services of William Cohen, who was a compassionate conservative to begin with, at the Defense Department. Gore could have generously found room for a Powell/Rice clone in the same capacity.) Given the proven and demonstrated unworkability and cost of the proposed system, it is very slightly more probable that Bush could cancel it without loss of face. But the "contractor community" (as I once heard it seriously called) has demands and donations to make and raised expectations to be fulfilled, and the exorbitant amount already committed may need to be justified, so it is sure that we will be hearing a great deal more about the need to protect ourselves from North Korea.
How to convey the absurdity of this? Take the example of the Taepodong missile test, that "shot heard round the world," when the North Koreans fired a rocket into the air and watched it splash down on the other side of Japan. Red alerts all around, huge talk about a new "rogue state" and a threat from sinister Asian Stalinism. Well, the most salient fact about that missile test was that, like the more grandiose Pacific tests of the Star Wars interceptors, it was a failure. The objective of the Taepodong rocket was to get a North Korean satellite into orbit; no signal from any such satellite has ever been picked up.
This puts the North Korean regime in an embarrassing position, because it proudly announced that the launch was a success. However, the hysterical Western reaction to the test has helped transform impotence into potency–an uncovenanted propaganda victory for Kim Jong Il and his regime. At the "Mass Games" in the May Day stadium in Pyongyang, which I attended a few days before Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrived to watch the replay, the centerpiece "special effect" was a giant montage of the Taepodong missile thrusting its way skyward, as if to bring the might of the Dear Leader to the attention of a waiting world.
They say that visitors to North Korea see only what the regime wants them to see. This is not true. In a country with almost no vehicles on its roads, one of the commonest sights is a group of soldiers from the Korean People's Army, peering mournfully into the innards of a broken-down transport. I hardly think that these scenes were provided just to lull me into a sense of false security, either, any more than were the bald tires and clapped-out accouterments of the top-of-the-line tourist bus on which I traveled. The power cuts and blackouts in the capital, the people taking care of their laundry and personal hygiene needs in an open drain in the city of Kaesong, the bullocks doing much of the work on main highways, the abandoned projects and buildings, the peasants scavenging food by the grain in the fields–none of these are Potemkin showpieces.