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Two striking images emerged from the United States this weekend, and they were very different.
There was Berkeley, Calif., where the pattern of recent weeks played out once again. “Free speech” protesters and left-wing radicals clashed in a scene that we’ve seen widely repeated.
And there was Houston, inundated and overwhelmed, but unbowed. All the pretense of politics was stripped away by a Category 4 blast of wind and rain, leaving only the needy and their neighbors desperately trying to help one another.
Political causes are meaningful. Free speech and equality are at the core of the American ideal. Blood has been shed to protect them. Yet Houston offers an important reminder of what happens when everything else is stripped away. For that moment, you see people bound by something bigger: genuine compassion.
“You don't see videos of people squabbling. You see regular people becoming heroes and stranded people accepting help with tears and elation,” wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke.
That compassion doesn’t make our differences go away. But Houston should exhort us to remember that neither should those differences make our compassion go away.
After a disaster like hurricane Harvey, who should lead the way: the community or the Feds? Houston's answer: both.
Ahead of hurricane Harvey, there were questions about whether Texas-style self-reliance or a civil-defense-era response from the federal government should govern. But as an all-hands-on-deck response to historic floods has unfolded, the all-of-the-above support exemplifies something new, disaster experts say: a template for what the nation’s top emergency managers call “whole-community” response. It’s a dramatic shift since hurricane Katrina in how the United States prepares for natural disasters, encompassing everything from agency leadership in Washington to Waffle House worker Kirby Sherrod and his sturdy compatriots from East Texas. “I do think we’ve seen a change,” says University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, author of “An Army of Davids.” “But the real difference isn’t citizens getting involved, it’s the willingness of responsible officials to see that involvement as a plus rather than a potential problem.” A new focus put into play during the Obama era – melding private supply chains and social networks with government assistance – has created a sense of preparedness that was lacking pre-9/11, says Mr. Reynolds. He cites a member of the Cajun Navy who led rescues during Louisiana floods last year: “We don’t wait for help. We are the help.”
As College Avenue in Houston flooded Saturday night, the yellow Waffle House sign at the top of the hill stayed on.
Stranded drivers trudged toward the glow through muck and rain and sat down for a sip of coffee and some eggs-and-grits, glad to be shielded, at least for a moment, from a storm named Harvey.
Sustaining 130 m.p.h. winds, hurricane Harvey slow-walked across the Texas Coastal Bend’s barrier islands and, as the winds eased, sent a conveyor belt of more than 9 trillion gallons of Gulf water so far, inundating East Texas. Even as more than 2,000 water rescues occurred around the city, Waffle House kept most of its restaurants open, booking nearby motel rooms so employees don’t have to go home.
That was true on College Avenue, where cooks and servers are working around the clock to feed the drifting throngs of survivors.
“We’ve become a refuge,” says Waffle House employee Kirby Sherrod, reached Monday morning by phone.
Ahead of the storm, there were questions about whether Texas-style self-reliance or a centralized, civil-defense-era response from the federal government should govern. But as an all-hands-on-deck response to historic floods has unfolded, the all-of-the-above support exemplifies something new, disaster experts say: a template for what the nation’s top emergency managers call “whole-community” response. It’s a dramatic shift since hurricane Katrina in how the United States prepares for natural disasters, encompassing everything from agency leadership in Washington to Mr. Sherrod and his sturdy compatriots from East Texas.
“I do think we’ve seen a change,” says University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, author of “An Army of Davids,” in an email. “But the real difference isn’t citizens getting involved, it’s the willingness of responsible officials to see that involvement as a plus rather than a potential problem. I think the excellent record of civilian volunteer responders in the post-9/11 record is behind that willingness.”
Almost 12 years to the day since a Category 3 storm named Katrina raked Louisiana and Mississippi, killing more than 1,800 people, hurricane Harvey, which came on land as a walloping Category 4, has taken fewer lives in America’s fourth-most-populous city – with just a handful of deaths reported as of press time. (That tally, officials note, could climb.)
For Houstonians, whether to listen to the government or your own common sense played into individuals’ decisionmaking on whether to leave town. But hovering over the call not to order the evacuation of more than 2 million people was the city’s disastrous evacuation in 2005 ahead of hurricane Rita – in which more than 100 people died, some in their cars as interstates gridlocked.
Despite rainfall that’s expected to reach 50 inches in some places, a number of factors have played into the relatively low casualty count in Houston and surrounding towns: geography, wealth, city planning and infrastructure, and Texas’s deep culture of individualism – along with an all-out federal response.
But a new focus put into play during the Obama era – melding private supply chains and social networks with government assistance – has created a sense of preparedness that was lacking pre-9/11, says Professor Reynolds. He cites a member of the Cajun Navy who led rescues during Louisiana floods last year: “We don’t wait for help. We are the help.”
The Cajun Navy – a makeshift brigade of Jon boats, Go-Devils, and airboats – descended quickly on East Texas, joining official vehicles including 10 helicopters and 19 high-water vehicles carrying out rescues from rooftops and car tops.
“I can't look at somebody knowing that I have a perfect boat in my driveway to be doing this and to just sit at home,” Jordy Bloodsworth, a Baton Rouge member of the Cajun Navy, told The Advocate in Houston. “I have every resource within 100 feet of me to help.”
During Katrina, some rescuers literally had to sneak into the city to help. In Houston, the Cajun Navy has been part of a massive volunteer response, encouraged by officials. Twelve thousand National Guardsman also are being deployed, the government announced Monday.
The Cajun Navy represents both literally and figuratively the importance of neighborhood social networks – what researchers call “social capital” – that has become increasingly part of national response to disaster.
In Houston, citizenry also had help from social media, where some residents were able to get around swamped 911 lines and go directly to the top. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales answered help calls personally on Twitter, asking residents to stay strong and hold on until rescue arrived. Some of those who sent out SOS tweets say their pleas were answered.
That openness to working around “official" channels suggests a post-Katrina shift within federal emergency management.
Former FEMA director Craig Fugate, who served under President Barack Obama, led the agency toward a national plan that addresses “the hazards we face as a nation and understand[ing] every part of a national response at all levels of government, the private sector, volunteer and faith-based communities, and the public,” he told The Atlantic’s David Graham in 2015.
At its heart, Mr. Fugate noted, a “whole community” response is “pretty basic stuff. But it does force us into thinking about disasters where government-centered problem solving will fail when our communities need us the most.”
So far, the Trump administration, under FEMA director William “Brock” Long, has gotten an A for its response from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican. President Trump will visit Texas on Tuesday, according to his press secretary.
“It’s the recovery where Trump’s leadership will matter the most,” emergency management expert Samantha Montano writes in Vox.
For one, Houston has in some ways failed to heed the lessons of hurricane Ike in 2008: Key wetlands keep disappearing around the fast-growing city, many building regulations are voluntary in a state that favors free enterprise, and a planned protective “Ike Dike” is still, nearly a decade later, largely a thought project that may not see shovels in the dirt for another decade.
And as in Katrina, Houston’s most vulnerable populations have borne the brunt of the flooding, and will likely continue to struggle in the recovery phase, says Northeastern University political scientist Daniel Aldrich, who found stark socioeconomic divides in how FEMA trailers were situated after Katrina.
The Trump administration had, prior to Harvey, vowed to cut FEMA state and local program grants by $600 million, fueling broader political questions around what happens to poorer Americans living in flood-prone areas. Proposed cuts to mitigation programs to help bolster coastal defenses have been a particular sore point. Proposed changes to a federal flood insurance program could lift a yearly premium cap to $10,000, putting such insurance out of the reach of poorer Americans.
As a backdrop, the majority of the Texas congressional delegation voted against extra funding to help recovery efforts from superstorm Sandy in the Northeast. And a Republican Congress, and a Republican president, are now tasked with reviewing the country's readiness for disaster – and who pays for it.
The Harvey response, rescue, and recovery – which is expected to take months, if not years – are likely to play into those policy arguments.
“This is a very old debate in North America: Are we a neoliberal state where welfare is going to be there for us or are we a state where communities are expected to solve their own problems?” says Professor Aldrich, a Katrina survivor and author of “The Power of the People.” “The typical American, however, has a very strong assumption that, during a disaster, there’s going to be a lot of help from the federal government.”
At the same time, he adds, “likely what saved lives are these deeper pockets of social capital in Houston.”
Waffle House, which opened its first restaurant in Avondale Estates, Ga., in 1955, is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Fugate coined the term “Waffle House index” as a way for emergency managers to gauge the severity of a disaster by whether its lights are on.
Besides questions about supply chains and infrastructure recovery, there’s also another factor at work on College Avenue – that a light on in the darkness buoys the human spirit.
When asked about his immediate prospects in a soaked Houston, Sherrod, the Waffle House employee, has a simple response.
“We’re going to keep it going until the rain’s gone,” he says.
Once again this weekend, California was a standard-bearer for the anti-Trump movement. But the crusade has come with upheaval, uncertainty, and bursts of violence. The state has become a crucible for the nation's angst.
Weekend marches in San Francisco and Berkeley reaffirmed the Bay Area’s, and more broadly California’s, position as the center of resistance to what liberals see as a wave of right-wing extremism sweeping the nation. And many who turned out were proud to call themselves Californian because of it. “The resilience of California’s populace sends a strong message of ‘We can take it,’ ” says Shirley Song, who came from Sunnyvale to participate in both rallies. Yet styling itself the capital of blue America has not come without cost to California, analysts say. Since President Trump took office, the state has wrangled with Washington over approaches to immigration, climate change, and social services – and faces the threat of cuts to key federally funded programs. It has also seen a surge in both hate crimes and violent protests, and its cities have become a front line for a nationwide struggle over freedom of speech and how to respond to hatred and bigotry. Nearly every action the president takes “is a gut punch to California,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, at the University of Southern California. “And California’s responding to what it perceives as a threat to its Democratic constituency.”
They came, they marched, and in their view, they conquered.
The thousands who hit the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley this weekend declared their demonstrations a success after Patriot Prayer, an Oregon-based group – which says it eschews racism, but whose gatherings have previously attracted white nationalists and neo-Nazis – canceled rallies scheduled to take place in both cities.
“When Nazis and white supremacists and white nationalists are in our city, we cannot stay home and we cannot stay silent,” says Mia, a data analyst from the South Bay. “We’re going to resist!” adds her mother, Barb, who wore a hat adorned with flowers and carried a bouquet as the pair joined the crowd in San Francisco. (They declined to give their last names.)
The marches reaffirmed the Bay Area’s, and more broadly California’s, position as the center of resistance to what liberals see as a wave of ultra-conservatism and right-wing extremism sweeping the nation. And, like Mia and Barb, many who turned out for the events were proud to call themselves Californian because of it.
“The resilience of California’s populace sends a strong message of, ‘We can take it,’ ” says Shirley Song, who came up to the Bay Area from Sunnyvale, near San Jose, to participate in both rallies.
Yet styling itself the capital of blue America has not come without cost to California, political analysts say. Since President Trump took office, the state has regularly wrangled with Washington over approaches to immigration, climate change, and social services – and still faces the threat of cuts to key federally-funded programs. The state has also seen a surge in both hate crimes and violent public demonstrations over the past year and a half, as protesters across a range of ideologies converge in the state’s most liberal enclaves. Those same cities have also become a frontline for a nationwide struggle over freedom of speech and how to effectively respond to hatred and bigotry.
That all this is taking place here is no coincidence, says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
“California is not only viewed as a bastion of progressive politics but a battleground for a demographically changing America,” he says. “To white nationalists, this is what they want to prevent the rest of the country from turning into. So this is tapping into a vein that’s existed for some time.”
The tension between the Golden State and the nation's capital has found its most visible expression at the level of politics and policy. When Mr. Trump pulled the US out of the Paris accord, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) met separately with China’s President Xi Jinping to discuss global efforts to address climate change. When Trump released his budget proposal, which outlined a hike in defense funding while cutting support for spending on social services, Governor Brown called it “unconscionable and un-American.” And as Trump doubles down on his campaign promise to build a wall along the US border with Mexico, California lawmakers prepare to pass the California Values Act, a statewide “sanctuary” bill that would further limit cooperation between state and local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
Nearly every action Trump takes “is a gut punch to California,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California. “[The administration has] targeted the state that gave Hillary Clinton her popular vote win. And California’s responding to what it perceives as a threat to its Democratic constituency.”
But conflict has manifested in the streets, too. While police reported only one arrest in San Francisco on Saturday, Berkeley saw more than a dozen people taken into police custody and several confrontations between right-wing activists and the larger crowd. Antifa – the term used for a loose affiliation of leftist-leaning, militant groups opposed to fascism – crossed police barricades to storm a park named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in downtown Berkeley.
The Sunday protest adds to the 27 public gatherings statewide that have involved “injury, arrests, property damage, or significant aggressive physical disruption” since February last year, according to data compiled by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
“The engagement in the mainstream between progressives and conservatives is playing out in a dangerous carnival mirror reflection between anti-fascists and anarchists, and white nationalists,” Professor Levin says.
To California’s most dedicated activists, such clashes are part of the cost of resisting racism and white supremacy. The social movements of the past were fraught with violence because sometimes that’s what it takes to defend democratic values, says Emily Lee, spokeswoman for Bay Resistance, a coalition of Bay Area advocacy groups. “We’re clearly in a fight around the moral soul of our country,” she says. “We can’t simply sit by and hope these alt-right groups go away. So we support nonviolent direct action, but also people’s right to self-determination and to defend themselves.”
For others, however, the situation is not so clear-cut. “We want to stand for justice, freedom, and free speech. I’m not sure that shutting down [Patriot Prayer] is the best way to fight,” says Betsy Bigelow Teller, a Berkeley resident who came to Sunday’s counter protests wearing Groucho Marx glasses. “I think there needs to be some sort of understanding and dialogue.”
Observers point out there’s a long history behind the struggle to define the line between free speech and hate speech, which is legally protected in America under the First Amendment, and between self-defense and outright violence. The events in the Bay Area this weekend, they say, serve as an expression of that struggle.
Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson insists that although he started the organization as a response to counter-protesters attacking attendees of a Trump rally during the presidential campaign, his anti-extremism message cuts both ways. “Nazism is extremely dangerous, but in my opinion no different than Antifa,” he says in a phone interview ahead of the Bay Area demonstrations. “Hate is hate. That’s what I’m trying to preach to people.”
He and his supporters say they have a right to be able to get that message out. Although the rallies he'd planned over the weekend were cancelled, Mr. Gibson did show up in Berkeley on Sunday, where protesters chased him and reportedly sprayed pepper spray at him. The police said they detained him for his protection, according to TV reports.
Many leading the counter protests in the Bay Area disagree. “It’s doesn’t matter if they themselves don’t support white supremacism,” says Ms. Lee with Bay Resistance. “They know who their rallies attract, and that has a direct impact on our communities, whether they claim that’s their intention or not.”
It’s a situation that analysts say American society will continue to grapple with in the face of deeply polarizing forces. “What are we supposed to do? I don’t know if there is an answer,” says Professor Jeffe at USC. “You can’t just say, Let’s all sing ‘Kumbaya.’ That’s one of the questions we’re going to have to focus on.”
California is likely to remain a primary stage in the search for solutions – and an epicenter of the discourse around intolerance and bigotry, Levin says. The state has led the way in demographic diversity and technology development, two major contributors to the rise of extremism and polarization, he notes. It stands to reason that the response to these changes will find headway here, too.
“California is not only symbolic, it’s a bellwether,” he says. “We’re seeing a test nationwide of how much extremism will enter the sociopolitical mainstream, and everything we see, we see more of here.”
North Korea is famously driven by a philosophy of self-sufficiency and a desire to be taken seriously on the global stage. The question is whether it can get what it wants by ramping up a powerful weapon in its arsenal: unpredictability.
Ten years ago, Kim Jong-un was a cipher: Nobody knew his age, the correct spelling of his name, or had a photograph of him as an adult. Even today, any attempt to discern his motives – or piece together his biography – is like trying to grab a handful of fog. But many experts agree that behind the bombast and cult of personality lies a rational, if brazen, leader who sees nuclear weapons as his only hope for survival – and his country’s ticket to being taken seriously. “Kim Jong-un is playing with fire,” says one researcher in Seoul, South Korea, “but so far he’s been very careful at it.” Since Mr. Kim came to power in 2011, the country has conducted three of its five nuclear tests and about 80 missile tests, more than twice as many as under his father and grandfather combined. A sixth nuclear test could occur any day. And exploiting that unpredictability is a Kim characteristic, as he pushes the nuclear program to a point where he can negotiate on his own terms. “He knows he’s in the driver’s seat,” says a former US ambassador. “It’s very dangerous, too, because I think he may get away with it.”
It was classic Kim Jong-un. There was the young North Korean dictator, flanked by his aging military brass, examining plans for a missile launch into waters around Guam, a US territory, in a large conference room. Mr. Kim was wearing a black Mao suit and horn-rimmed glasses and sporting his signature pompadour. With a baton in hand, he pointed at a map that detailed the missiles’ flight path. A satellite image of Andersen Air Force Base, which is located on Guam, was projected on a wall at the front of the room.
The staged tableau, shown in photographs released by North Korea’s state media on Aug. 15, is undoubtedly provocative, as it was intended to be after a series of ominous exchanges between Kim and President Trump over Pyongyang’s latest missile tests. But a statement released with the photos signaled that North Korea was pulling back. It said Kim would wait to assess “the foolish and stupid conduct” of the United States before he decides to launch any missiles toward Guam. While many people were quick to write off the episode, experts say it was at least a partial victory for the Kim regime.
“Kim Jong-un and North Korea are being taken seriously now,” says Michael Madden, who runs the North Korea Leadership Watch website and closely studies Kim. “This is the attention they want. They want to be taken seriously as a country with nuclear arms and formidable missiles.”
In one sense, the leader’s strategy of stomping his feet so the rest of the world will take notice is straight from the playbook of his father and grandfather, who, along with the current Kim, have ruled the hermit kingdom for 70 consecutive years. But after his nearly six years in power, it’s clear there are some significant differences between Kim and his forebears, and that he is exhibiting a ruling style that has evolved in unexpected ways.
He has consolidated power more quickly than most people expected, ruled with a ruthlessness unusual even for the North, and embraced limited market reforms. He’s also driving the country’s nuclear weapons program rapidly toward a status that would put it in an elite global club.
That program has long been characterized as an insurance policy for a country deeply suspicious of foreign powers and committed to an ideology of self-reliance. But Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, South Korea, contends that it is about far more than protecting the Kim dynasty. He says the youngest Kim has demonstrated unbridled ambition for restoring what he sees as his country’s rightful place in the world.
“Kim Jong-un has very grandiose ideas about himself and North Korea,” Dr. Go says. “He wants to make his country a regional power, not just survive, and the shortcut to getting there is nuclear weapons.”
The question is what all this means for the US and the rest of the world. After the recent tart words between Kim and Mr. Trump, many Americans were wondering, perhaps even half seriously, whether they should start building fallout shelters in their backyards again.
Such fears are premature, but containing North Korea certainly won’t be easy. Kim’s insatiable nuclear ambitions and compulsion to have Pyongyang taken seriously, coupled with Trump’s unpredictability and desire to reassert American power, mean the world may be heading for one of the more fraught periods since the Cuban missile crisis. At the very least, Kim may have now pushed his country’s nuclear program to the point where he doesn’t bend either to overtures and pressures from China or threats from the US.
“He knows he’s in the driver’s seat,” says Max Baucus, the former US ambassador to China. “It’s very dangerous, too, because I think he may get away with it. That is, get away with building up his nuclear and missile capabilities so that he becomes a nuclear power.”
In mid-August, as North Korea was preparing to launch its four intermediate-range ballistic missiles toward Guam, the country held a five-day celebration for the entire ruling Kim family. High school students marched in Pyongyang. Soldiers laid flowers in front of statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the first two leaders of North Korea. And officials sang the praises of the current regime. “Long Live General Kim Jong-un, the Sun of the 21st Century,” one banner read.
The Kim family would appear to have much to celebrate. It has survived in power far longer than almost anyone thought possible, and its nuclear weapons program has now progressed to the point where it could prolong the family’s rule indefinitely. The latest major breakthrough came in July, when North Korea tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles that analysts say are capable of reaching Alaska and the US mainland. In late August, it launched three more short-range missiles into the sea, as the US and South Korea conducted annual joint military drills that Pyongyang considers an invasion rehearsal.
North Korea’s nuclear efforts have expanded most rapidly under the 33-year-old Kim, who was virtually unknown to the world at the start of the decade. Until a year before he came to power, in 2011, nobody knew his age or the correct spelling of his name. No one had even seen a photograph of him as an adult.
Kim has since earned the reputation of being a ruthless dictator (ordering, it is widely believed, the execution of his uncle and the assassination of his half brother) and an international pariah (with his brinkmanship with the US and open mocking of the United Nations). He has long been thought of as a narcissist and megalomaniac.
Despite his reputation, many experts agree that behind the bombast and cult of personality lies a rational, if brazen, leader who sees nuclear weapons as his only hope for survival. Although Kim has taken a step back from the brink of nuclear war with the US, it is conceivable that he will never give up his weapons for that reason alone.
“He is looking for security,” says Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “He feels vulnerable, and he probably always will.”
Few world leaders have lives as impenetrable as Kim’s. His position as ruler of one of the most isolated and secretive countries can make any attempt to discern his ultimate motives like trying to grab a handful of fog. The same goes for trying to piece together his biography. Former basketball star Dennis Rodman and Kenji Fujimoto, a former sushi chef for the Kim family, are two of the few people outside North Korea who have met with him since he’s been in power. Kim has yet to travel overseas or host a visit from another head of state.
As a result, much of what we think we know about Kim’s life is based on rumor and speculation. False claims and wild conjectures abound. In late 2013, for example, a Hong Kong newspaper published an article saying the young leader had his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, killed by a pack of ravenous dogs. Other unconfirmed reports said Mr. Jang was executed by machine gun or mortar fire. All that anyone seems to agree on is that he is dead, along with perhaps as many as 140 other senior officials whom Kim likely saw as threats to his rule.
“Kim Jong-un was very vulnerable at the beginning because he was so young and inexperienced,” says Natasha Ezrow, a senior lecturer at the University of Essex and coauthor of the book “Dictators and Dictatorships.” More recently, Kim is suspected of having ordered the assassination of his half brother, Kim Jong-nam, who was killed with a VX nerve agent at an airport in Malaysia earlier this year. “This is a guy who is trying to prove something,” Dr. Ezrow says. “He has acted very insecurely.”
Ezrow is quick to point out, however, that Kim has had good reasons to feel insecure. Outside North Korea, many assumed Kim was the supreme leader in name only when he first came to power. It was widely believed that his uncle, who had stepped in as de facto regent when Kim’s father had a stroke in 2008, was really the one in charge. At first glance, the younger Kim didn’t seem to fit the mold. Not only was he his father’s third son – first sons are usually groomed for such a role in North Korea’s traditional society – his mother was considered “impure” within the North Korean caste system for having been born in Japan.
Yet as early as 2010, when Kim first appeared in North Korean state media, it was clear that his two older brothers had fallen out of favor with their father. The eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, is said to have preferred partying to politics, while the second son, Kim Jong-chol, was considered too effeminate. In September 2010, Kim Jong-un was presented as a four-star general and vice chairman of the nation’s Central Military Commission. The announcement sent an unequivocal message about which son Kim Jong-il had chosen as his successor.
There were earlier signs, too. Kim Jong-un was reportedly adored by his father when he was young. Mr. Madden, who runs the North Korea watch website, says the young leader grew up in an atmosphere of extreme privilege but great isolation. He was raised by his mother to think he was the chosen one, Madden says, a kind of upbringing that “can warp your thinking.” That job now falls to the North Korean state media, which works tirelessly to perpetuate Kim’s cult of personality.
Kim is believed to have studied in Switzerland pretending to be the son of a North Korean diplomat for at least four years. Every day, an embassy driver picked him up from school and drove him home. He was rarely allowed to play with friends his own age. An undistinguished student, Kim is remembered as having been fond of video games, “James Bond” films, rollerblading, and basketball. The Chicago Bulls have long been his favorite NBA team, and Michael Jordan his favorite player (Mr. Rodman also played for the Bulls).
“When he started to play basketball, he was telling his brother what to do,” Mr. Fujimoto, the sushi chef, told “Frontline” in 2014. “Sometimes I wondered whether Kim Jong-un wasn’t really the older brother.”
Perhaps in some ways, Kim’s eccentric childhood prepared him well for his current role. While he is often derided in the West as being an unhinged dictator and a chubby brat – “a total nut job,” in the words of Trump – Madden says there is a method to his madness.
“The North Koreans want people to think they are crazy because then they will underestimate them or overestimate what they are capable of,” he says. “Being unpredictable gives them a lot of psychological power.”
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Kim’s regime has been its ability to exploit that unpredictability for its own benefit. It has a long history of issuing threats and ultimatums that don’t necessarily lead to action but still throw North Korea into the international spotlight. “Kim Jong-un is playing with fire,” says Go of the Asan Institute, “but so far he’s been very careful at it.”
To be sure, North Korea has developed a nuclear program that is advanced enough to back up Kim’s tough talk. Since he came to power in 2011, the country has conducted three of its five nuclear bomb tests and about 80 missile tests, more than twice as many as under his father and grandfather combined. A sixth nuclear test could occur any day. What’s more, The Washington Post recently reported that North Korea may have succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles.
There is no question how important North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is to Kim. He is well aware of what happened to Muammar Qaddafi of Libya when he negotiated away his program. Yet experts agree that Kim isn’t interested in carrying out a first strike against the US or South Korea. He knows that such a move would be suicidal. Instead, he sees his bombs and missiles as a way to force the world to accept the North as a full member of the international community and to negotiate with the US on his terms.
“He feels that if he races towards a weapon that can reach the US, Washington will be forced to the table and will come up with concessions,” says Stephan Haggard, a North Korea analyst and visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. But concessions aren’t all Kim is after, Dr. Haggard says, adding that the young leader wants the US to recognize North Korea as a nuclear power.
“Kim Jong-un is very clever,” Haggard says. “He is playing a weak hand extraordinarily well.”
At around 5 a.m. on April 13, dozens of foreign journalists gathered in a hotel lobby in Pyongyang. The journalists had come to the North Korean capital as part of a government-sponsored trip to mark the 105th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder, who is still revered as a godlike figure. The previous night, according to Reuters, government officials had told them that a “big and important” event was scheduled for the morning.
After a two-hour security check at the People’s Palace of Culture, the reporters were bused to their final location: a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Ryomyong Street, a residential high-rise project in central Pyongyang. Reuters reported that the street contained more than 20 buildings, each about 30 to 40 stories tall. North Korean officials said they had been built in less than a year.
“The completion of this street is more powerful than 100 nuclear warheads,” Premier Pak Pong-ju said in a speech at the ceremony, according to the Los Angeles Times. Kim didn’t speak but instead waited on stage for the unfurling of a red ribbon. After cutting it, he stepped into a black Mercedes limousine and drove away.
The spectacle of one of North Korea’s top government officials comparing a block of high-rise apartments to nuclear weapons is telling about the Kim regime’s priorities. The comparison goes to the heart of “byungjin,” or parallel advance, Kim’s policy of developing the economy alongside the nuclear program. His argument is that only a nuclear deterrent will grant North Korea the security it needs to focus on the economy.
Cai Jian, an expert on North Korea who teaches at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, says that so far the policy has shown signs of success. North Korea has achieved modest economic growth in recent years, an impressive feat given the increasingly tough sanctions leveled against it. Dr. Cai attributes that growth to market-oriented reforms that have improved access to food and goods and loosened the state’s control.
“The improvement over the past few years is quite obvious,” Cai says. Aside from the building boom in Pyongyang, visitors to the capital have reported seeing large numbers of cars and trucks on its streets. At the same time, marketplaces have opened in cities across the country to accommodate a growing class of merchants and entrepreneurs.
“Kim Jong-un has helped deliver economic growth that North Korea has not seen in decades,” says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul and the director of Korea Risk, a consultancy group.
Indeed, North Korea’s economy grew at its fastest pace in 17 years in 2016, according to data released by South Korea’s central bank in July. But Dr. Lankov says North Korean elites have accumulated much of the new wealth and that income inequality is actually rising. The country remains deeply impoverished, especially in the countryside. Two in 5 North Koreans are undernourished, and more than 70 percent of the population relies on food aid, according to a UN report published in March.
Experts such as Lankov say Kim is nonetheless widely popular among North Koreans. How much of that support is due to propaganda and fear is, like so much else about the enigmatic leader, unknown. It doesn’t hurt that Kim gets in periodic fiery spats with the US. North Koreans are taught as early as kindergarten that the US is the world’s singular villain.
So when Kim taunts Washington with his histrionic rhetoric – and Trump responds with his own threats – some analysts argue it plays into the narrative of North Korea as a feisty underdog standing up to the pernicious superpower.
“Inside North Korea, this propaganda is everywhere: The big, bad United States is preparing to attack us, and our leader, Kim Jong-un, is building nuclear weapons to defend us,” Jean H. Lee, a former journalist who reported from Pyongyang and is now a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote in a recent op-ed in The New York Times.
That may be one reason Kim’s regime is able to justify spending at least an estimated one-fifth of its national budget on defense while millions of North Koreans go hungry. In the end, however much this government-fueled nationalism is a factor in mollifying the public, one thing seems certain: Even in the face of overwhelming economic hardship, to say nothing of the mounting international pressure, Kim is still very much in charge.
“Kim Jong-un’s style is smart and pragmatic, even though it’s often quite brutal,” Lankov says. “For the Kim family to stay in power, he was the perfect choice.”
Contributing to this report were staff writer Peter Ford in Paris and Xi Yujuan in Beijing.
China has made significant inroads into Africa. Now, India is playing catch-up. Will it behave itself any differently?
Millions of ethnic Indians live in Africa. Some were brought by the British; others settled here centuries earlier as maritime merchants. The men here in Nairobi, Kenya, who gathered at this summer’s “Made in Gujarat” expo to show off Indian firms, are but the latest iteration of that tradition, having traded dhow boats for direct flights. But both the old-guard Indian community in East Africa and new immigrants find themselves increasingly squeezed by Beijing’s long reach, as China’s growing global ambitions bring decades-old tensions between the Asian powers to a new frontier. “In many ways, India is playing catch-up on a continent that it actually has historically had much longer and deeper roots on,” says Jatin Dua, a professor at the University of Michigan. In May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi snubbed a meeting for "One Belt, One Road," Beijing’s $900 billion infrastructure initiative across Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Just weeks later he announced his own initiative, the “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor,” in conjunction with Japan. “The Indian Ocean does not separate us,” Suchitra Durai, India’s high commissioner to Kenya, tells the crowd at the expo. “It connects us.”
On Monday, when China and India stepped back from the brink after weeks of mounting tensions along a disputed Himalayan border, it was a stark reminder of a decades-old rivalry. Agreeing to “expeditious disengagement,” the two countries appeared to damp the flames they'd reignited in June, when Chinese forces attempted to extend a road in the contested Doklam Plateau.
Nevertheless, their tensions continue to play out far from their borders. Some 4,000 miles away, Indian soldiers of another sort are fighting back against a different Chinese road: the One Belt, One Road infrastructure initiative, Beijing’s $900 billion Silk Road for the 21st Century. OBOR made its Kenyan debut in June with the inauguration of a rail line from Nairobi to the coast, replacing the tracks laid by Indian servants under colonialism a century earlier. And on August 1, China formally opened a military base in Djibouti – its first in Africa – further intensifying an interest in East Africa that has made the region a playing field for Sino-Indian rivalries.
The soldiers on India's front lines in Kenya wear trim suits. Their battlefields are shopping malls and conference halls. In July, dozens came to Nairobi to present their products – industrial gears, embroidered textiles, sanitary pads, and motorcycle helmets – at the third annual “Made in Gujarat” expo, introducing Indian firms to African markets. Meanwhile, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma addressed a hall of Kenyan university students, part of a regional tour alongside 38 other Chinese tycoons.
“The regional geopolitics in Asia get refracted outwards globally into these expressions of foreign policy,” says Padraig Carmody, the head of the geography department at Trinity College Dublin.
India would appear to have the home advantage, given its proximity and long-standing trade with East Africa. “The Indian Ocean does not separate us,” Suchitra Durai, India’s high commissioner to Kenya, tells the crowd at the expo. “It connects us.”
Yet Indian merchants here face increasing competition, as China’s growing global ambitions bring decades-old tensions to a new frontier. Indian businesses are racing to keep up, as its historic ties to the region come face-to-face with strategic, state-backed campaigns for influence from Beijing.
The Indian diaspora in Africa numbers in the low millions: some were brought by the British; others settled here centuries earlier as maritime merchants. The men here in Nairobi are but the latest iteration of that tradition, having traded dhow boats for direct flights.
These Indian nationals began arriving in the 1990s when India liberalized its economy and opened its borders for business. African economies were ripe for investment, thanks to the end of the cold war – and corresponding financial support for the developing world.
Now, both the old-guard Indian community and new immigrants find themselves increasingly squeezed by Beijing’s long reach. “The impact has been less state versus state, but taking stabs at an ethnic niche Indians enjoyed in East Africa,” says Jatin Dua, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who studies the region, says of growing Chinese influence.
The plucky Indians at the expo know they can't match China's deep pockets and immense state machinery. So they fight back where they can. “If you’re looking for quality, you go for Indian products,” Rudvik Sankhala, a carpentry tool salesman at the expo, says proudly. And in the past few years, men like Mr. Sankhala have also found the Indian government behind them, as it tries to reverse its waning influence, eying new political and economic opportunities.
“In many ways, India is playing catch up on a continent that it actually has historically had much longer and deeper roots on,” Dr. Dua says.
Shri Chandramouli, the commercial attaché of the Indian High Commission, visits each stall at the event, handing out his business card, sharing contacts for established local magnates and potential clients, and promising appointments in his office. “We are a young country, and we are not competing with China,” he insists.
Many analysts see a different story. In May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi snubbed a meeting of OBOR nations. Just weeks later he announced his own initiative, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, in conjunction with Japan.
Dr. Carmody, author of “New Scramble for Africa,” says that India has long taken this approach of “balancing” Chinese foreign policy.
“The Indians have been mirroring or mimicking what the Chinese have been doing since 2000,” when Beijing established a regular Chinese-African high-level summit, he says. India held its inaugural African summit in 2008 and announced $10 billion in credit for African development at the last meeting in 2015.
The continent also offers the two countries a cheap supply to meet their citizens’ growing demands. Both meet nearly one-fifth of their oil demand with African imports. They’ve bought up oil concessions in hostile environments like South Sudan, and offered billions of dollars in infrastructure packages to petrostates across the continent.
China and India are also looking to Africa to provide affordable food for their growing domestic populations. In one of the few examples of India outspending China, India extended $640 million dollars to develop Ethiopian agriculture; China extended $55 million for an irrigation project. Similar deals have been made by both nations in Kenya, Mali, and elsewhere – projects some criticize as thinly veiled land grabs.
A defining feature of these development projects, though, is a policy of non-interference, as opposed to Western aid contingent on economic and political reforms. University of Cambridge lecturer Emma Mawdsley, author of “From Recipients to Donors: The Emerging Powers and the Changing Development Landscape,” says India and China are actually benefitting from the economic liberalization pushed by Western agencies, however. “They’re sort of walking behind the big stick the IMF is carrying,” she says.
However, analysts warn that the Asian superpowers’ competition in Africa should not be overblown. Only 3 percent of Africa’s foreign direct investment comes from China, but given the flashy projects – road systems, power generation plants, multi-million dollar football stadiums – their engagement is magnified.
But there are also key differences in the scope and method of their tactics. Massive state-funded infrastructure projects symbolize China’s strategic presence, while Indian engagement is constrained by its budget. India’s GDP is about one-fifth the size of China’s, and soft power plays – often done hand-in-hand with Indian nationals in the diaspora, like the “Made in Gujarat” expo – are becoming characteristic of India’s engagement.
Indian officials also emphasize ancient trade links and a shared history of colonial suffering in strengthening modern ties. Much of that history, however, has been sanitized: such as the fact that Africans were brought to India in the 1800s to serve as slaves and soldiers. Or that Idi Amin expelled Indians in Uganda in 1972. Mahatma Gandhi's attitudes toward black South Africans have likewise been largely forgotten.
Nevertheless, Gandhi hoped for cooperation. “The commerce between India and Africa will be of ideas and services, not of manufactured goods against raw materials,” he said. Today, however, the majority of exports from Africa to India are raw resources. And the lines-of-credit that form the cornerstone of Indian diplomacy require that 75 percent of the money must be spent on Indian goods and services.
Indian officials maintain that India is a true partner of Africa, and is only trying to share its development experience with neighbors across the sea.
“We have a saying in India,” Mr. Chandramouli says. “Vasudhaiva kutumbakam.” The world is our family.
As Labor Day weekend approaches in the US, with a late-summer respite from work, here’s a chart that may stir a little fresh thought about the balance between work and leisure.
The economy is often measured in raw-dollar terms. But back in 1930, British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote about how, as workers grow more productive thanks to technology, the result should be not just more output but also more leisure time. The chart below shows how, as nations climb the income ladder, their people tend to work fewer hours. And how, due to factors including culture and labor laws, there’s a lot of variety among high-income nations. In the United States, incomes are high and hours relatively long. (The US lacks the kind of national policies on worker vacation and paid parental leave that other advanced nations have.) But some places in the lower right of the chart actually have higher output per hour than the US – $38 in Denmark, $50 in Switzerland – and workers who spend fewer hours on the job. Meanwhile, nations in the upper left hint at how people in developing nations are often poor not just in consumption but also in leisure. – Mark Trumbull
Floods and water scarcity have a history of drawing people together – even adversaries – and enhancing the skills of communities in recovery and resilience. That’s one theme that emerged as thousands of water experts gathered in Sweden for World Water Week, the leading annual global event for solving water problems. The term for this work is “hydro-cooperation,” and the news out of Texas has given the concept special currency. After hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana set up the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, a strong body that coordinated several agencies in protecting coastal areas against future storms. The authority, which drew bipartisan support, is now seen as a model, especially for Texas, which does not yet have a comprehensive plan to protect its vulnerable coast. What advances will the next layer of learning bring?
Here’s some unexpected news that may console many rain-drenched Texans:
As hurricane Harvey began to ravage the Gulf coast on Saturday, thousands of water experts gathered in Sweden for World Water Week, the leading annual global event for solving water problems. A major theme of the conference is that crises involving water – whether too much of it or too little – have a long history of being a catalyst for cooperation rather than conflict.
Floods and water scarcity, in other words, have a record of drawing people together – even adversaries – and enhancing the skills of communities in recovery and resilience, according to these experts. Just listen to the current news out of Texas about successful rescue efforts, government preparation for the storm, and plans for rebuilding communities and for better coastal protection.
Such “hydro-cooperation” is hardly new. Ancient civilizations from Cambodia to Rome grew out of a desire for collective irrigation (dikes and ditches) or preserving access to water (aqueducts and reservoirs). Yet in recent centuries, as pressures on water resources have risen or big storms have hit major populations, the world has gained an ability to manage potential conflicts over water and its uneven distribution. The universal need for water has created universal norms about its use, abuse, or excess. And the global trend is to settle disputes over water issues.
In 2012, for example, the United States set up a water partnership of federal agencies and nonprofits to mobilize expertise on water security to help developing countries. In 2014, a United Nations treaty on resolving disputes over “international watercourses” took effect.
Another example is what happened after hurricane Katrina in 2005. Louisiana set up the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, a strong body that has swiftly coordinated several agencies in protecting coastal areas against future storms. The authority, which drew bipartisan support, is now seen as a model, especially for Texas, which does not yet have a comprehensive plan to protect its vulnerable coast.
Scholars note that very few wars have been waged over water throughout history. Instead, political bodies have reached some 3,600 water-related treaties in the past 1,200 years, according to the United Nations. Many water disputes still need resolution, especially in Africa and Asia. The Nile’s waters, for example, remain contested as do water resources shared by Israelis and Palestinians.
Global success in water cooperation now has its own heroes. A key event at this year’s World Water Week is the granting of a special prize to Stephen McCaffrey from California’s University of the Pacific. His work as both a scholar and mediator in international water law has contributed “to the sustainable and peaceful management of shared waters.” Such efforts may be small comfort to flood-stressed Texans. But at least they mark progress in how the world manages water.
Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.
When waters rise and floods threaten, aid can still be found, even when human help is unreachable. When traveling by car in a hurricane, contributor Tessa Parmenter saw the value of paying attention to intuition. As a Christian Scientist, she had learned that intuition, based on pure motives and the inspiration of goodness, is natural to everyone. Heeding it saved her from tragedy. And it can save others – in Texas and elsewhere. Understanding that we each have an innate spiritual sense to guide us has proved to provide lifesaving direction in times of trouble.
In turbulent times – when flood or storm threatens – can intuition direct us away from danger? Several years ago, before getting into my car, a thought came that I would not make it to my planned destination that night. It didn’t come from a place of doubt or fear. In fact, there was nothing on the surface that would indicate that might be the case, but listening made all the difference.
My upbringing in Christian Science had taught me to pay attention to such strong, calm intuitions. The Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, describes them as “God’s thoughts passing to man; spiritual intuitions, pure and perfect; the inspiration of goodness, purity, and immortality, counteracting all evil, sensuality, and mortality” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 581).
According to the teachings of Christian Science, these thoughts are natural for anyone to hear, because God and man are linked: God is creator, and man is created in the image and likeness of God, as explained, for instance, in the first chapter of Genesis. If we are God’s image, then we each individually reflect the knowledge of divine intelligence. As an all-loving God (see I John 4:16), it follows that God ensures the safety of His own creation and can direct us to where we need to be.
While I drove, raindrops dotted the windshield and became thicker. As I neared the exit to my destination, the pavement rippled with rain.
This time, a strong intuition came that I needed to seek another route. But I reasoned against it. I thought that the longer I stayed out in the rain, the worse it would get, and that my best recourse would be to take the shorter route to my destination. But a puddle appeared on that shorter route, and I hydroplaned.
It became immediately clear that my own reasoning could not be trusted. I knew that I needed to listen to these spiritual intuitions, as logical or illogical as they seemed. A proverb from the Bible states: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5, 6).
In that moment, I regained control of the car and realized just how literally I needed to rely – and could rely – on that Bible passage. As close as I was, I didn’t hesitate to follow the strong message that said to avoid the road to my original destination. I didn’t ask to know why, but the next day I learned the answer. The day of my trip made international news. Flood levels were higher than they had been in over 500 years. Houses and storefronts had significant water damage, and roads – including the road I was led not to turn down – had actually washed away and would have washed me away with it had I not turned off onto the other route when I did.
I didn’t make it to my original destination, just as the original intuition predicted, but I was immeasurably grateful to arrive safely at another.
To this day, I don’t second-guess these spiritual intuitions. They have proved countless times to be a reliable help in both literal and figurative turbulence. This experience among others further convinces me that every one of us today has a God-given right to wisdom, and I pray that all are directed to safety.
Adapted from a Christian Science Perspective published Oct. 24, 2014.
Thank you for reading today. We'll be back tomorrow with a fresh set of stories. Among them: The mini-surge of troops to Afghanistan was one piece of President Trump's new South Asia policy. Another: a more confrontational approach toward Pakistan. What are the aims there – and can the approach work?