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Rocket Maniac

It can be a sad thing when a talented person fails to realize their potential. A young footballer or athlete might suffer a crippling injury. A promising writer or artist might become an alcoholic. An actor might die in a car-crash just as stardom beckons.

But if it’s sad to see one person fall short, it’s worse to see an entire country do the same. The news that North Korea has fired a rocket and put a satellite in orbit is another reminder of the talent and intelligence of the Korean people. But while South Korea has lived up to its potential, North Korea has fallen far short of it. North Korea is a giant prison-camp, not the industrial powerhouse it might have been. The Korean war, which left the Korean peninsula cut in two, began a decades-long experiment in different political systems.

By the end of the twentieth century, the results of the experiment were clear. The communism imposed by the Kim dynasty in the north had been disastrous for the North Korea people. You can see the effects of their rule from outer space – or rather, it’s what you can’t see that matters. South Korea blazes with light, but North Korea is a blot of darkness, starved of light by lack of electricity. Only Pyongyang, the capital, is faintly visible on satellite photos. And only the elite can live there, clustered around the country’s present leader, Kim Jong Un, son of Kim Jong Il and grandson of Kim Il Sung.

The Kims are figures of fun in the rest of the world, mocked for the personality cult they have created and for their bad fashion sense and hair-cuts. They aren’t a joke to the North Koreans. As in the Soviet Union under Stalin, you don’t have to be guilty of serious crimes to be severely punished in North Korea. Whole families can be sentenced to slave labour for trivial offences committed by a single member. Many prisoners are entirely innocent, because the system is corrupt from top to bottom and isn’t designed to give people a fair trial.

It isn’t designed to keep North Koreans well-fed and warmly clothed either. Famines have struck the country again and again, and outside visitors report that there is an eerie absence of animals, birds and even insects. Shops are poorly stocked or empty, there are frequent power-cuts, and giant images of the Kims dominate all public spaces. North Korea has been deliberately impoverished and walled off from the rest of the world to keep the Kims in power.

But even the starved and brutalized North Koreans have been able to achieve great things. Unfortunately, their achievements have been military. North Korea has the atom bomb and now may have built a rocket capable of carrying it over great distances, even to America or Europe. Its near neighbour Japan is more worried than ever and even its close ally China may be forced to take robust action. But North Korea does not behave rationally when it is criticized for its behaviour. Sanctions and diplomatic rebukes will only increase its paranoia and its desire to acquire more powerful and deadly weapons.

Kim Jong Un is more than a rocket man: he’s a rocket maniac, threatening the world in a way not seen since the end of the Cold War. But nothing is certain in the world except uncertainty. We seemed to have passed threat of a massively destructive nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Now the old fears are back again. It’s true that North Korea is a small threat by comparison, but the threat will need careful handling. The North Korean dictatorship has stunted the vast potential of its people for decades. We have to hope that, sooner rather than later, the dictatorship will end and the potential be released