North Korea long has been called the “Hermit Kingdom,” largely sealed off from the rest of the world. Although the North’s isolation has eased in recent years, it still resembles “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchill famously described the Soviet Union. For instance, no one is sure what to make of the execution of the young leader’s uncle and one-time mentor Jang Song-taek.
However, the latest turmoil provides an important entrepreneurial opportunity for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The country is one of the poorest on earth, with constant hunger and occasional starvation, which killed hundreds of thousands of people in the late 1990s. In fact, Jang was tasked with promoting economic development and denounced for having “seriously obstructed the nation’s economic affairs and the improvement of the standard of people’s living” and “making it impossible for the economic guidance organs including the Cabinet to perform their roles.”
No one knows the truth of these charges. But something continues to obstruct economic development. And a bloody purge will only make things worse, since investors and traders crave stability. The fall of Jang, who was seen as a friend of China, also may adversely affect formerly close economic ties with the DPRK’s big neighbor. In fact, apparatchiks associated with Jang are being called home from China.
Something needs to be done to spark the sort of growth in North Korea occurring elsewhere in East Asia, including China. The answer is to turn the purge into a profit-making opportunity. Communist countries always have had a special talent for treating power struggles as public spectacles. Why not also use the ongoing purge to make some cash?
Start with T-shirts. A colleague of mine suggested “I Survived the Purge” would be a winner with foreigners. T-shirts also might sell well in Pyongyang, assuming anyone actually does survive the purge. Other ideas include “I was Purged and All I got was this T-Shirt” and “Purge them All and Let God Sort Them Out.” The North Koreans could add companion sweatshirts and baseball caps.
Tourist shops could stock bobble-heads of political favorites, including winners and losers in the North’s ongoing political battles. Directed especially at the Russian market would be matryoshka dolls, with successively smaller figures fitting within the others.
Of course, the troika of Kims, Great Leader, Dear Leader, and Cute (although increasingly Tough) Leader, would be essential for every collector. An assortment of other family members, including siblings and step-siblings, aunts and uncles, multiple wives and consorts, and suspected illegitimate children could add diversity. Then there are a plethora of military and party officials tasked with turning divine Kim will into practical DPRK policy. Fallen rivals, like Jang, could be dressed in prison garb or placed on a tombstone — or perhaps hold their bouncing heads in their hands rather than on their necks.
The Kim dynasty could license a special line of liquors, along the lines of Jack Daniel’s new “Sinatra Select,” named after Frank Sinatra, who favored the brand. The late Kim Jong-il was a devoted fan of Chivas Regal and accounted for a surprising share of its global sales. Perhaps Kim fils has a special drink he relaxes with — you know, the sort of cocktail you sip while purging and executing your enemies. Think of the sales opportunities, and not just at the duty free shops at Pyongyang airport! These could become a major export.
Another opportunity is product endorsements. DPRK founder Kim Il-sung long lived with a large tumor on his neck — his name could be affixed to medical products, procedures, and facilities. Kim Jong-il cornered the market on platform shoes and big sun-glasses, as well as bouffant hair styles. His image undoubtedly would be eagerly sought in the West. Kim Jong-un loves basketball. What American boy would want to be without the special Kim Jong-un ball and hoop set?
Indeed, there’s no reason to stop with basketball products. The latter Kim could team up with his close personal friend and NBA great Dennis Rodman, who is headed over to the North despite the political turmoil, to start a professional basketball league in North Korea. Imagine the Pyongyang Purge playing on the home court in North Korea’s capital. Leagues could be extended throughout East Asia and even beyond. The U.S. could send the Western Human Scum on tour in the DPRK as a popular foil, a reverse Harlem Globetrotters. Ticket sales should be strong and Pyongyang could sell naming rights to arenas at home and teams abroad.
The North Koreans also should create board, card and video games centered around their unique “social system,” as they called their society when I visited years ago. Who needs “Monopoly” when you can have “Show Trial”? Trade in venerable “Risk” for “Smash the American Imperialists.”
Playing cards could mimic the famous U.S. government “deck of cards” with pictures of wanted Iraqis. The DPRK variety could variously picture Heroes of the Revolution and Enemies of the People (with constant updating as figures fell from favor and rose to power). North Korea could issue an international set as well, with heroes led by Eternal President (though tragically deceased) Kim Il-sung and including the usual pantheon of other Communist worthies. The international Enemies of the Revolution set could be filled with American, Japanese, and South Korean figures.
The online possibilities are endless. The DPRK version of “Civilization” could allow players to develop societies without electricity filled with starving people driving ox-carts on dirt roads. The objective would be to simultaneously enrich the most apparatchiks and build the most nuclear weapons. Combat games could feature liberation from South Korean oppression, overthrow of Japanese colonialism, and, of course, destruction of American imperialism. The North already has released video presentations of New York in flames.
Finally, the North needs to tap into the global cultural marketplace. The Juche Monument in Pyongyang is filled with bricks from North Korean study societies around the world, so demand for DPRK art, music, television shows, and movies should be strong. Who needs Hollywood, Bollywood (India), and Nollywood (Nigeria) when you could have Pollywood in Pyongyang? (In fact, Kim Jong-il was so committed to developing a domestic movie industry that he ordered the kidnapping of foreigners to produce North Korean works.)
Television offers even greater opportunities. For instance, North Korea’s “Survivor” could put several dedicated revolutionaries in a desert or jungle and see who could build the biggest and best monument to Kim Jong-un. A group of North Koreans could be lodged in the same house and tasked with determining who among them was the counter-revolutionary allied with Jang Song-taek. They then would deliver the appropriate punishment on camera. A variant of “What’s My Line” could have North Koreans ad-lib in response to various scenarios, such as “Honor the Cute/Tough Leader,” “Defend the Revolution from Human Scum,” “Purge All Those who do not Applaud Kim Jong-un,” and “Liberate the Oppressed South Korean People from their American Lackey Overlords.” These compelling shows then could be syndicated around the world.
Obviously, these sort of activities would only be the start of an economic revival. Reform is required throughout the DPRK economy. But turning bloody purges and political infighting into profit-centers would generate needed hard currency. Doing so also would demonstrate the sort of entrepreneurship that foreign investors and traders should appreciate.
Jang Song-taek, noted “human scum,” is no longer with us. But his legacy could live on if the Kim regime grasps the opportunity before it. With the right marketing, Jang could end up bigger than Darth Vader, an enemy of truly global proportions. And Pyongyang could profit in the process.