North Korea's fireworks

Question: When is a missile less important than the official painting of a missile? Answer: When Kim Jong Il is running the show.

Published July 5, 2006 2:58PM (EDT)

Apparently jealous of our Fourth of July celebrations, North Korea's Kim Jong Il has spent the last day firing missiles into the Sea of Japan like so many bottle rockets. The good news is that North Korea does not have very good missiles. The bad news is that North Korea still has nuclear weapons.

Many experts are guessing that North Korea's intentions are less military than diplomatic. Indeed, past missile launches have proven beneficial for the Stalinist regime: After the 1998 test fire of a long-range missile, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang. After a 1993 missile test, North Korea won U.S. promises to help with a civilian nuclear power plant. "Each time, good results,'' one North Korea booster tells Bloomberg.

But it's hard to know for sure what North Korea's leaders are really thinking. The North Korean government's official news agency is certainly no help. On the day that the missiles were launched, the news agency reports that Kim Jong Il toured a tire factory in Pyongyang. "After being briefed on the factory in front of a huge painting showing a panoramic view of the factory, he went round various production processes to learn in detail about its construction and production there," the news agency reports.

For a nation where reality is often trumped by the official version of reality, it seems somehow appropriate that Kim Jong Il took time to tour a factory in front of a painting of a factory. I have no doubt that it was an impressionistic work of art.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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