The Long View 2004-04-23: Cracking Ice

Rumors of the demise of the North Korean system were clearly exaggerated. Kim Jong-il made it another 7 years after this 2004 news item.


Cracking Ice

Accounts of yesterday's train disaster in North Korea are proliferating and inconsistent. (So is the romanization of the place where it occurred: "Ryongchon" or "Yongchon.") Earlier accounts say that the trains in question contained LNG and petrol. Later ones say explosives. In the explosive-laden versions, the trains either collided, or the explosives were set off by overhead electrical wires while the explosives were moved from one train to another. Total fatalities may be about 50, or 150, or that may just be for the people in the rail yard, with the final total about 3,000. None of these accounts is authoritative, including the ones from the Red Cross.

President Kim Jong-il's movements are generally secret, but he is believed to have passed through the station in question about nine hours before the explosion, returning from his recent summit meeting in Beijing, which is not believed to have gone well for him. This occasioned speculation that the disaster may have been a failed assassination attempt. The New York Times, which favors the petrol & gas theory, suggested another possible connection:

The fuel trains may have been payment to Mr. Kim for traveling to Beijing last week to meet with Chinese officials. In recent years, South Korea and China have routinely made large gifts to North Korea: either fuel, fertilizer, food or cash to ensure that bilateral meetings take place.

This explosion of rumor in an vacuum of hard information is reminiscent of the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in 1986. Because the government of the USSR initially tried to cover up or minimize the event, there were rumors (as I recall) that 50,000 people could have received lethal doses of radiation. Immediate casualties seem to have been in the dozens rather than hundreds, but perhaps 200,000 had to be evacuated, and there was a chronic uptic in thyroid cancer rates.

The Chernobyl incident marked the beginning of the end of the USSR. It did not seem so at the time, however. Then General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev used the occasion to reverse the USSR's traditional "bad news is no news" policy, as part of his larger program of glasnost ("openness") and market reform. These were universally seen as rational and humane policies. Some people predicted that the USSR would blow up if the level of repression decreased. Hardly anyone foresaw that the union would simply fall apart in five years.

This sequence of events is unlikely to recur in North Korea, but it's about time for something to happen.

* * *

Speaking of harbingers for the future, one notes this bit of unwelcome news from Capitol Hill:

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said it is time to think about compulsory military service again -- with American forces stretched thin by fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq -- but he stopped short of actually calling for resumption of the draft.

I am at a loss to understand what conscription would be supposed to accomplish at this point. Conscription made sense when "the army" meant masses of riflemen: the cannon-fodder military that appeared with the French Revolution. All specialties are so technical now that the brief training regimes of conscript militaries, as we know from the European countries that still have them, are little to the purpose. Moreover, combat arms is fairly selective. Even people who want a draft to make the military unusable would accomplish nothing more than to create a voluntary combat elite within a summer-camp system.

Regarding the argument that America's elite are shirking the risks of military service, who constitutes "the elite" in civilian life? Few Harvard graduates these days have military experience, perhaps, but businesses looking to hire executives are far more impressed by a military commission on a CV than they are by an MBA.

* * *

Meanwhile, Congress is thinking about what to do should a decapitation attack on Washington succeed:

[One] bill, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (search), R-Wis., would require the holding of special elections within 45 days of the speaker's announcement of "extraordinary circumstances" that include more than 100 vacant seats in the 435-seat House...Democrats who oppose the Sensenbrenner bill as inadequate are angered by what they say are GOP-imposed limits on their ability to present alternatives, such as constitutional amendments to recognize temporary appointments as a way of preventing congressional paralysis...Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., also has proposed amending the Constitution so that each general election candidate for the House or Senate would be authorized to name, in ranked order, three to five potential temporary successors.

To this I say (as perhaps I have said before): instead of special elections, why not draft ordinary citizens to sit in Congress until a special election can be held? We do it for trial juries and grand juries. That would be a more meaningful way for the political class to mix with ordinary citizens than would sending them all off to boot camp together. In ancient Greece, remember, elections were thought aristocratic; democrats preferred to select decision makers by lot.

* * *

Finally, on the subject of postmortem disposition, I have become a great fan of the Kingdom Hospital series on ABC. This is an adaptation by Stephen King of a Danish television series. King was inspired to write it by his own stay in a hospital: he was hit by an SUV while walking along a road in Maine, which is what happens to a character at beginning of the series, too. In real life, the driver of the car was later found horribly and mysteriously murdered in his trailer home. In the series, the driver just fell off a roof. I'm not making this up

The series has a cleverly understated website here. Actually, it is so understated that casual websurfers may not get the joke, which seems to be the problem with the series in general.

One quibble: did I mishear the television, or does the script confuse All Souls' Day (November 2) with all Saints' Day (November 1)? Maybe that's what you get for not just using Halloween as the date of the fire that killed those innocent children so many years ago. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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