Tuesday, October 25, 2011

North Korea, the Arab Spring, and the Curse of the Billy Goat

I grew up in Cubs country. Everyone I knew was a Cubs fan, so naturally I assumed the Cubs were the greatest team in the history of the game. "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was originally written by Harry Carey, the correct lyrics were "Root, root, root for the Cubbies," and anything else was heresy. Every once in a while our family would drive in to see a game at Wrigley Field, where we would fill out score cards and eagerly watch the scoreboard to learn all the official products of the Chicago Cubs. And when the sound system prompted we would all belt out the song,

"Hey Chicago, waddya say? The Cubs are gonna win today."

It was only as I got older that I started to notice a strange, ironic look in the grown-ups' eyes as we sang those words. It didn't seem to matter what Chicago said or how loudly we said it, the truth was most days the Cubs were not going to win.

Season after season, we always started out full of new hope; maybe there was a promising new pitcher, or new ownership, or an early-season winning streak that put them at the top of the division for a while, and we gullible kids would start to think "Maybe this year..." But then the team would hit the June Swoon and flounder on down through the rankings until it hit the inevitable: Mathematical Elimination Day, and another year to wait before the Cubbies would have another shot at the World Series. Once in a great while they would make the playoffs, but those years were even crueler to our innocent childish hopes. The Curse of the Billy Goat was upon us, and the Cubs had not won a World Series since 1908.

Sooner or later all Cubs fans learn the same soul-crushing lesson: never dare to dream, and you'll never be disappointed.

Following North Korea is kind of similar. The country has been stuck under the thumb of the Kim dictatorship since 1945. Many game-changing world events have come and gone in that time, many stronger regimes have fallen, and countless experts have confidently predicted the imminent downfall of the Kim regime time and again - but so far, all have been proven wrong.

Even when their supreme leader died right in the midst of a nuclear crisis and just a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Communist regimes were falling left and right and the North Korean people were entering a period of unbelievable deprivation, still the regime kept on going with barely a hiccup. Today, they appear to be preparing for a 3rd-generation leadership transition to an untried 28-year-old, despite unprecedented popular dissatisfaction in the wake of a failed currency redenomination and a dangerous amount of information seeping in from the outside world.

Yet few respected North Korea watchers are putting their weight behind any solid predictions about the fall of the regime. They've all gotten smart; they've learned the same soul-crushing lesson the Cubs taught me as a child; never get your hopes up. The only ones you'll hear talking about the regime's imminent demise are young scholars who are new to the game of Pyongyang watching; the little kids at the ball park with their hearts full of hope and their bellies full of cotton candy.


When I was 18, I went off to college in New England. Suddenly everyone was talking about the Boston Red Sox and their chances for finally winning the World Series. Apparently the Red Sox had also become somewhat infamous in this regard, failing to win the World Series every year since 1918. My New England friends seemed to think this was impressive. They even had their own curse, the Curse of the Bambino, an obvious rip-off of our Curse of the Billygoat.

A few years later the Red Sox finally beat their so-called "curse," and my New England friends rejoiced and then went on about their business. Meanwhile, the Cubs continue to flounder on, now well into their second century of disappointment.

In Seoul we've experienced a similar feeling over the last year, as we've watched the news of the Arab Spring and the wave of change toppling the old regimes of northern Africa, and listened to breathless speculation of how the movement might soon sweep aside the regimes in Yemen or even Syria. Never was the imagery as striking as in the last week, as we learned that Kim Il Sung's erstwhile friend and fellow traveler Qaddafi had met his gruesome end. The reporters have constantly referred to the "42-year reign" of Qaddafi, their voices quavering with awe, as if it were unimaginable that a brutal dictatorship could last so long.

Kim Il Sung and Qaddafi in Pyongyang, Oct. 1982

Meanwhile, over in their corner of the world, the North Korean people are now suffering through the 66th year of the Kim regime, with no end in sight. Though doubts exist, the Party officials continue to serve up their empty promises. "Sure, times have been hard," the propaganda line goes, "But just wait, next year is really going to be our year." As the North Korean writer Kim Myong Chol recently wrote in the Asia Times, "There is every likelihood that in 2012, supreme leader Kim Jong-il and his heir designate Kim Jong-eun will preside over North Korea's admission into a third elite club, that of strong and prosperous states. The North is already a member of the space and nuclear clubs... Full of confidence and pride, Pyongyang also plans to follow up on next year's achievement by joining the ranks of the 'most advanced' countries by 2020."

Or, as we say back home, "Hey Chicago, waddya say? The Cubs are gonna win today."

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