Maybe it’s only a matter of time – indeed, it may already have happened – before our uninvited house-guest Covid-19 is accused of being ‘fat-phobic’; illogical Woke logic has long since disregarded facts about poverty or Vitamin D deficiencies and has branded the coronavirus racist, so I guess (if we momentarily sidestep the Trans crowd) the next group on the league table of the Oppression Olympics that Covid has singled out for special treatment will be the obese. Not even sure if ‘fat-phobic’ is the correct term; is fat now referred to as the F-word? No, it can’t be on account of us having FAT-shaming. Big, we are told, is beautiful and not remotely unhealthy – if recent fairyland magazine covers are anything to go by, anyway. We couldn’t simply have curvy models closer to the average shape most women would recognise; we had to have huge ones just to hammer home the point. Funny how there is never any middle ground in this argument. We go from borderline anorexic to grossly overweight in one fell swoop.

Fine to celebrate an unconventional body image if the individual in question is content with it; but to promote obesity as some sort of desirable lifestyle choice seems as recklessly irresponsible as the ‘Heroin Chic’ look that some supermodels (or superwaifs as they were labelled) embraced in the 90s. But, hey, we live in the age of 2+2=5, so to suddenly declare that being a lard-arse is ‘cool’ is hardly a surprising development. The internal damage done by obesity is, of course, something only the Man with X-Ray Eyes has intimate access to, but one could say the same about smoking. Indeed, if we are to have wealthy fatties selling themselves as ‘body perfect’ and flying in the face of all medical advice as they do so, why don’t we reintroduce billboards and magazine ads for fags? We all know cigarettes are bad for you, but so is stuffing your face with sugary foodstuffs; both are down to individual choice, after all – no one forces a Big Mac into someone else’s mouth any more than they stick a lighted cig in it.

But I guess this is a time when individual responsibility is an unfashionable concept and the heavy eater or the heavy smoker are not to blame for the poor state of their own health; we’ve all been so infantilised that individual autonomy characteristic of the grownup is out of the question. If we have to ask the state permission to go for a walk like we used to ask our mums if we could play out, it’s no wonder we look to blame others for our own personal failings. We’re not responsible for anything we do anymore, and that includes what we eat. True, some do have genetic (and mental) conditions of which obesity is a by-product and these necessitate legitimate medical intervention; but the majority of obesity tends to be self-inflicted, either unconsciously (though simple ignorance) or consciously (though not giving a shit). Don’t point any of this out on social media, however. How dare anyone claim the overweight are obese because they eat too much shit and don’t exercise! They’re just as valid victims as all the rest! And whatever you do, don’t dare suggest that selling the overweight as ‘glamorous’ is a bad idea; that’s almost as heinous as saying men can’t menstruate, lactate or give birth. If anyone ever doubts this line of insane thinking is approaching a fanatical religious doctrine, just tweet some common sense facts that contradict the narrative and watch the fun begin. War is peace, as someone once observed.

Perhaps the uncomfortable truth that countries with some of the worst cases of obesity have suffered some of the highest death tolls during the pandemic backs up the inevitable ‘fat-phobic’ nature of the coronavirus. What else could it be? A report by the World Obesity Federation says that the fattest nations have had nine out of ten Covid deaths linked to the overweight state of their populations, with fatalities far higher in countries where 50% or more of its people are obese. Indeed, here in blobby old Blighty, we’ve had the third highest death rate whilst simultaneously being at No.4 in the world’s fat chart. Obesity certainly seems to favour the West; Far Eastern countries have suffered fewer Covid deaths and also coincidentally have far lower rates of obesity among adults. Japan appears to have addressed obesity as part of their pandemic package, whereas over here one of the heavily-promoted projects during the brief break between lockdowns was the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, which felt like the Government sponsoring the nation to binge on bad (or fast) food, even when there was already a well-established connection between a poor diet and susceptibility to contracting the coronavirus. Not that obesity wasn’t recognised as a ticking time bomb before the events of the past twelve months intervened, but Covid-19 gate-crashing the feast has perhaps highlighted just how much of an accident waiting to happen obesity was.

Talking of the apparent success with which Far Eastern countries have tackled the coronavirus in comparison to the Western nations, turns out North Korea is the biggest success story of all. According to the ever-dependable Pyongyang Ministry of Information, not one single Covid death has been recorded in the country, which is pretty impressive, especially when one considers North Korea’s proximity to China. The response of the Democratic People’s Republic to the pandemic has been, according to the UN, to impose ‘drastic measures that have exacerbated human rights abuses and economic hardship for the country’s citizens’. This is particularly tragic on account of the absolute absence of human rights abuses and economic hardships that existed there prior to Covid, something for which North Korea has always been celebrated.

Infamously one of the most isolated nations on the planet, the pandemic has seen North Korea strengthen its borders even further, but the loss of trade with China – coupled with the international sanctions already in place – has hit it hard. China provides North Korea with 90% of its trade, but the past year has seen an 80% drop in that trade. The sudden absence of farming tools and fertiliser vital to the country’s agricultural economy was made worse by serious typhoons and floods even before the monsoon season, pushing millions to the brink of starvation. Humanitarian work has all-but ceased and relief aid remains in limbo at the border with China. At times like this, it’s sadly ironic that a nation in which so many of its people are experiencing severe food shortages is fronted by one of the most roly-poly world leaders. I guess if there is to eventually be one Covid death recorded in North Korea, Kim Jong-un would appear to be more vulnerable than most of his people, what with him being such a fat bastard.

The vaccine – of which North Korea is set to receive 1.7 million doses, evidently as a preventative measure – is clearly a sensible requirement for anyone over a certain age, though this should have been the group within society that was ring-fenced right at the beginning – ditto anyone (to regurgitate that familiar phrase yet again) ‘with underlying health conditions’. And, despite what several stupid American magazine front covers would have you believe, being grossly overweight is indicative of an underlying health condition. Not to worry, though – even those who watch what they eat remain in the firing line. A few posts back I predicted an inevitable new mutation of the virus would magically appear to once more postpone the lifting of restrictions, and – hey presto! – we now have the Brazilian variant; keep a look out for the Narnia variant, the Neverland variant and the Somewhere-over-the-rainbow variant coming soon to a lockdown near you! But chances are it might favour you most of all if you’re on the obese side.

© The Editor


The great recruitment programme for the Boer War at the end of the nineteenth century was the first eye-opener for the British Army as to how the nation’s diet had substantially altered in an extremely short space of time. From possessing a population in the mid-Victorian era that recent research has shown was healthier than we’ve ever been since, the health of England’s cannon-fodder had been ruined by food imports from the colonies; salt-heavy tinned meat, syrup-heavy canned fruit and sugar-laden condensed milk had served to wreck the iron constitution of John Bull. A different kind of diet, though no less damaging, was exposed this week following emergency surgery on a defector from North Korea, revealing a body riddled with grisly parasites.

Apologies if you’re eating as you read this, but the defector – also a military man – was operated on in Seoul to repair injuries sustained during his escape from South Korea’s neighbour. One parasitical worm removed from the injured man was 27cm long, extracted from his digestive tract by a surgeon claiming to have only ever come across such internal infections in medical textbooks before. One would assume a major qualification for joining any army is to have an above average level of physical fitness, so if this soldier is in such bad condition, what does that imply about the rest of the North Korean people?

Nutrition and hygiene in North Korea have long been suspected as being pretty appalling, though the closed shop the country remains has prevented any sustained study of the nation’s diet. Most of the conclusions made by outsiders are dependent upon examinations of recent defectors, and the kind of parasites discovered during the operation on the latest escapee were apparently commonplace in South Korea half-a-century ago until economic improvements all-but wiped them out. Again, apologies are in order if you’re perusing this post with your egg & chips, but some believe the use of ‘night soil’ (i.e. human excrement) as fertiliser in North Korea could have a lot to answer for. The drying-up of state-supplied chemical fertiliser from the 90s onwards has resulted in this desperate scenario, encouraged by the far-from malnourished Kim Jong-un, a man who probably doesn’t have to eat his own shit.

Corn was also prevalent in the soldier’s stomach; more and more North Koreans are dependent on cheap imported corn from China (49,000 tonnes this year so far) following a series of droughts in the country. The scraps of info available, such as that supplied by the World Food Programme, paint a bleak picture of a populace decimated by drought, famine and a totalitarian regime viewing it as utterly dispensable. According to the WFP, North Koreans are on average 5 inches smaller and 15 pounds lighter than their South Korean counterparts due to decades of poor diet with a distinct absence of protein and fats; a quarter of pre-school children are estimated to suffer from chronic malnutrition. The contents of the escaped soldier’s stomach appear to serve as evidence of what a lifetime of a limited diet imposed by Government can do.

Of course, the West’s health worries are of a different nature; unlike North Koreans, we have an abundance of choice, albeit both good and bad. The plague of obesity may contrast sharply with the widespread malnutrition in Kim Jong-un’s backyard, though even the relatively recent upsurge in home-grown fatties is nevertheless something we’ve been sliding towards over the last affluent hundred years. It can be traced all the way back to the point in the nineteenth century when processed sugar and salt-based foodstuffs superseded the previous dependency on fresh veg, fruit, fish, eggs and nuts. The impact of just one generation hooked on such a diet was as evident to doctors examining volunteers for the Boer War as any exploitative Channel 5 documentary about ‘Britain’s Fattest Bastard’ would today show how dangerously pivotal the innovations of the late Victorian dinner-table have become to the twenty-first century appetite. Ironically, Kim Jong-un has the kind of physique more characteristic of the West than the Far East, though he (like us) has the choice to overindulge if he so wishes.

However, whilst the imposition of physical ill-health via the portly gangster running North Korea may be unique to dictatorships, the mental malnutrition that goes hand-in-hand with it isn’t. A nation such as ours might be able to boast a higher standard of living for its people than North Korea, though the austerity measures of the past seven years, which have hit the poorest hardest, have long been linked to the increasing tendency of more people than ever to prop themselves up with antidepressants. A new report even attributes Tory policies since 2010 to 120,000 deaths. From a steady decline in mortality rates between 2001 and 2010, the authors of the study claim this trend has subsequently been reversed from the Coalition onwards, with more than 45,000 deaths during the first four years of Dave’s stint at No.10 than anticipated as funding for health and social care fell in real terms.

It’s hardly rocket science that if healthcare provision is underfunded, those most reliant on it are at greater risk of their lifespan being reduced. The social care budget between 2010 and 2014 dropped from 2.20% to 1.57%, and the spending constraints then coincided with a sudden rise in the death rates. One of the paper’s authors referred to austerity policies as ‘a public health disaster. It is not an exaggeration to call it economic murder’. Critics have called the conclusions drawn in the study as ‘speculative’, though I often marvel at the fact that the entire population hasn’t formed an orderly queue at Beachy Head, considering the increasing paucity of reasons to keep buggering on. Then again, at least we’re not living off ‘night soil’. Yet.

© The Editor


Well, it takes one to know one. Kim Jong-un referring to Donald Trump as ‘mentally deranged’ following the US President’s characteristically blustering speech at the United Nations this week was at least a diagnosis delivered by someone who recognised the signs. The war of words between Washington and Pyongyang has accelerated again, although on the same day that Iran’s response to Trump’s criticism of them was manifested as defiantly launching a ballistic missile, the American Air Force decided to fly bombers across the fringes of North Korea’s east coast – upping the testosterone ante somewhat. There’s a lot of muscle-flexing and macho posturing going on at the moment, and though the sanity of the guilty parties is regularly questioned, I think sanity is probably one of the first casualties of power, anyway.

The actions of leaders on the world stage are often engineered to provoke the biggest impact back home, and there are suspicions that one of the ways in which the organised crime dynasty ruling North Korea is retaining its grip on the country is by overstating its global significance. The people of North Korea – or at least those not breaking rocks for the thought crimes of their ancestors – are force-fed propaganda on a daily basis that tells them how important their country is; to the North Korean people, footage of Kim Jong-un viewing missile launches and surveying the troops convey the image of a great statesman leading a great nation; if he has the nerve to repeatedly stick two fingers up at America, Kim Jong-un must be the man the media proclaims him to be.

Twice in the last month, North Korea has flown missiles over Japan, but in the wake of Kim Jong-un’s reaction to Trump’s UN speech, his foreign minister said that one option open to the great dictator was ‘the strongest hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific’. Last time an atmospheric nuclear detonation took place on the planet was in 1980, carried out by China; China’s nuclear programme from the 60s onwards had been underestimated by the west just as North Korea’s has been, and Kim Jong-un could regard such a potentially devastating test as a means of proving he means business if Trump’s confrontational rhetoric is to be taken seriously. Needless to say, the damage to not only marine life, but to the environment as a whole in the Pacific should this happen is scary. Even scarier is the thought of an accident en route. A missile carrying a H-bomb accidentally plummeting down and landing on Japanese soil could have unthinkable ramifications.

A few weeks ago I bumped into an acquaintance of mine who told me she was going away for six months – to Japan. Her son lives there, having married a Japanese woman, and while I wished her well, I couldn’t help but think there might be some safer locations in the world to spend the next half-a-year. Going by current standards, though, not many. Mind you, the lady in question has been around long enough to have lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, so I should imagine she’s used up her quota of sleepless nights. The fact she’ll be residing in the same geographical neck of the woods as the world’s incumbent Public Enemy Number One also probably won’t unduly bother her; the alternative was returning home to visit her elderly mother, but as she’s American, that prospect doesn’t sound too appetising either.

For all the endless foot-stamping, placard-waving protest of Trump’s most vocal critics, the fact they live in a country where they can criticise their President without looking forward to ending their days in a labour camp is worth remembering. The ridicule Dubya received during his tenure in the White House looks like gentle leg-pulling in comparison to the treatment meted out to the Donald, though those meting it out are still allowed to do so free from fear of being carted off and never seen again. Faced with persistent provocation from North Korea, Trump is naturally going to respond; but Trump being Trump means this response will inevitably be in the style of an NFL coach bigging up his team on the eve of the Superbowl. Trump gave his adoring supporters exactly what they asked for when he spoke at the UN, whereas those on the other side were understandably appalled by his ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ approach. Obama would have done things differently, but Obama hardly left the world a safer place than how he found it by doing things differently.

One positive move amidst the rather tense atmosphere has come from China – still the one country in a real position to cut North Korea down to size without resorting to nuclear options; in response to the latest UN sanctions, China has reduced the amount of oil it supplies to its troublesome trading partner and has also stopped buying North Korean textiles. The latter might not sound much, but many of the clothes that have a ‘Made in China’ label sown into them emanate from North Korea, and the ban could cost the country upwards of £350m a year. As for the oil, North Korea purchased almost 2.2 million barrels from China last year, so that will hurt it too.

Kim Jong-un has no qualms over murdering members of his own family to ensure he remains in power, so flouting international laws and the authority of the UN probably doesn’t cause him any existential angst. And, ironically, there are enough of Trump’s own countrymen who regard their President as a dangerous idiot to find themselves in agreement with the Asian Ro-land’s opinion of the Donald. As Ray Davies once said, it’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world.

© The Editor


Shortwave radio may be the most underused of all the AM wavebands, though its ability to travel far greater distances than either long or medium-wave has enabled it to cross continents, open extended lines of communication between amateur radio hams and provide intelligence services with an invaluable means of both eavesdropping on the enemy and passing instructions on to agents in the field. The clandestine cult of the Numbers Stations (which I have covered in previous posts) has highlighted the indisputable existence of the latter shortwave use, even if governments remain in public denial. The repetitive reading of numbers by an electronically-generated voice, reciting a code indecipherable to the layman, was a vital weapon in the Cold War because shortwave broadcasts can often be untraceable.

The golden age of the Numbers Stations was when the majority of them emanated from behind the Iron Curtain, though they have continued to appear on shortwave long after the so-called Russian Woodpecker over-the-horizon Soviet radar system served as a useful jamming device. Many these days come from the likes of Cuba and China. Shortwave radio is an almost infallible method of secret communication, far more than the easily-hacked and traceable signal from the internet. The notion that a medium dating from the early years of the twentieth century is a safer bet than contemporary technology flies in the face of everything we’re led to believe in this techno-savvy age, when the lifespan of mediums means they seem to have a use-by date stamped on them the minute they exit the conveyor belt; but it’s true.

It goes without saying that I’ve no evidence whether or not shortwave is utilised to penetrate the closed world of North Korea, but if it isn’t it should be. The global reach of the worldwide web experiences something of an obstacle when confronted by Kim Jong-un’s citadel; very few of the great dictator’s subjects have internet access, so snooping on the traffic travelling in and out of Pyongyang is a considerably more challenging task than watching westerners wanking over webcam wonders doing rude things in a Belarus bedroom.

That many of the North Korean nuclear testing sites are situated underground has also limited the ability of American satellites to observe the country’s rapidly developing nuclear programme. Modern spying techniques that work so well when observing the innocent have proven to be all-but useless whenever the west has attempted to keep an eye on the Far East’s most worrisome nation.

North Korea’s old sponsor China hasn’t seen fit to share what its own intelligence has been able to divulge re recent events, though North Korea’s understandably jittery neighbour in the South has claimed more missile launches are being prepared; these would be hot on the heels of the one that flew over Japan last week before splashing down in the Pacific. North Korea has also bragged that it now has the capabilities for attaching a hydrogen bomb onto a long-range missile, after testing out said explosive device at the weekend, one that apparently made the H-bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 resemble little more than a fart in a curry-house.

The detonation of North Korea’s weekend H-bomb could be clearly detected in tremors that were felt in the Chinese city of Yanji, though few who flooded social media with their videos of the aftershocks were initially aware this had been a manmade earthquake. The fact that North Korea chose to test their H-bomb on the same day as Chinese President Xi Jinping was scheduled to give a speech at an international diplomatic shindig perhaps demonstrates its growing detachment from its former ally. Each of the recent publicised North Korean nuclear tests have coincided with major dates in the Chinese President’s schedule; the fact that China has backed UN sanctions against the nation it remains one of the few in the world to still trade with clearly grates.

China, however, is still in a position where it could effectively bring North Korea to its knees, being the country’s principle supplier of gas and oil as well as laundering billions in its banks; the apparent reason it doesn’t seems to stem from Chinese fears over what the collapse of the North Korean regime would do to the region. If North and South were to reunite, with the whole of the nation becoming one giant South Korea, China is concerned that the US would exercise the same influence it already has over the South, turning the reunified Korean Peninsula into another American base in the Pacific akin to Japan. China isn’t exactly keen on the thought of US troops stationed on its borders, but how much more is it prepared to tolerate before it exercises its remaining power over its one-time protégé?

China and the USA have a greater influence in the area around North Korea than any other world powers, so they are both better placed than most to change the current situation; but it’s equally obvious that they need to work together to bring about a resolution that the UN is incapable of concocting. North Korea has hardly paid much attention to that institution so far. President Trump declaring that America is considering no longer trading with any nation that trades with North Korea seemingly overlooks the fact that China provides the country with 90% of its trade. For the moment, North Korea is essentially dropping its trousers and mooning China, the US and the UN in an act of schoolboy taunting; but China still wields the cane. All it needs to do is use it and maybe the rest of the world can sleep a little sounder as a consequence.

© The Editor


The ominous spectre of a totalitarian regime transplanted to a western setting was a regular feature of dystopian post-war fiction for decades, covering everything from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ through to television dramas like ‘1990’ (produced by BBC2 in 1977). The worst development for a democratic society was perceived to be adopting the Eastern Bloc model, though it proved to be a fruitful source of material for dramatists. Watching any new broadcasts from North Korea in 2017 – especially in the last couple of days – one cannot help but shiver at the way in which they appropriate all the clichés from futuristic fiction produced in the late twentieth century and come across as especially toe-curling. Then the viewer remembers that, for North Korean viewers, this is actually the real deal; this is what they see whenever they switch their TV sets on.

The news that North Korea’s latest foray into punching above its limited weight has been manifested as the launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile a couple of days ago has added further layers to increasing tensions in the Far East, arguably the world’s most prescient powder-keg whilst the planet’s eyes remain focused on the Middle East. Yes, the pre-inauguration promises of The Donald to ‘deal’ with the issue of North Korea reflected an awareness of the problem the tiny rogue nation poses to world peace; but it’s probably true to say so much attention has been devoted to instability in Middle Eastern hotspots ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq that Kim Jong-un and his bizarre regime has been allowed to progress to nuclear power status largely unimpeded.

Trump expects China to pull its finger out and lay the law down to North Korea in a way that complements its long-time role as one of the country’s few allies; but, to be fair China’s real investment in North Korea expired several years ago. Kim Jong-un’s kingdom today largely exists on its own terms, without recourse to Beijing. China has too much money and good will invested in western powers (as well as Africa) to fall back on old alliances with archaic Stalinist states that have outlived their usefulness. Prior to Nixon’s groundbreaking approaches to Maoist China in the early 70s, Peking’s isolation from Moscow had forced it to forge allegiances behind the Bamboo Curtain; today, this no longer applies. It has friends in far higher places. In many respects, North Korea is viewed by China as an embarrassing throwback to old-school Communism that has little relevance to its own free-market interpretation of Marxism.

Since the distant days of Mao and Nixon, China has healed its rifts with Russia, and the Kremlin has exploited American fears of a nuclear arsenal that could reach as far from Pyongyang to Alaska by urging both sides to stop flexing their military muscles. The implicit accusation is that both sides are as bad as each other, and with such an unpredictable character as Trump in the White House, Russia could have a point. Then again, how is the US supposed to react when one of its own states is within the sights of Kim Jong-un’s toys? When an even closer nuclear arsenal was spotted on Cuba in 1962, America’s response could have had cataclysmic consequences for the world had not Kennedy successfully called Khrushchev’s bluff. The thought of Donald Trump being placed in a similar situation is not one guaranteed to ease sleepless nights.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that ‘it is perfectly clear to Russia and China that any attempts to justify the use of force by referring to the UN Security Council resolutions are unacceptable, and will lead to unpredictable consequences in this region which borders both the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China’. Yes, at times, North Korea, with its endless military parades and penchant for showing off its big missiles, is reminiscent of a man constantly stressing how hard he is without actually putting his money where his mouth is; but being able to distinguish between the reality of its threat and the propaganda is difficult when few outsiders can gain access to it.

Fifteen years on from being bracketed along with Iran and Iraq as ‘The Axis of Evil’, North Korea remains a stubborn sore on the planet’s backside, led by a man even more unhinged than his late father. The phrase itself was credited to George W Bush’s speechwriter David Frum, and it reeks of old world order certainties, whereby ‘rogue states’ were headed by unelected dictators redefined as cartoon Bond villains; they ruled over specific landmasses with clearly defined borders that could be found on maps of the world. It’s no coincidence that ‘Axis of Evil’ sounds like a team of Marvel super-villains that can only be defeated by the Fantastic Four or the Avengers. Such terms simplify antiquated concepts of evil and make them palatable to a western audience raised on Good Vs Evil battles in black & white terms via the movies and the inherited memories of the Second World War, when we knew who our friends and enemies were.

It was telling that Dubya reserved his ire for Iraq above the other two members of the club, extending the simplicity of his language to describe the ‘Axis’ by assuming the problem of Iraq could be solved simply by invading the country and removing Saddam Hussein from power. Ironically, the consequences of Dubya’s intervention there have probably served to dilute his monochrome vision of evil so that what we have today is the likes of ISIS – a fluid, multi-headed, stateless organisation that may view itself as a state even if it’s no more a state as we would recognise it than Israel was before 1948. At least we can still understand North Korea. It adheres to the traditional template.

President Trump said today ‘something will have to be done’ about North Korea in response to its ‘very bad behaviour’; what that ‘something’ is remains to be seen, though America’s recent record when dealing with small, insignificant Asian countries that stand up to it isn’t exactly a blueprint for success. As the Sun said a few years back in one of its occasionally inspired front-page headlines, how do you solve a problem like Korea? It would appear nobody yet has the answer.

© The Editor


kimAlthough I wasn’t exactly an avid follower of the news as a ten-year-old, I do remember the murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov on a London street in 1978. I suppose it was the unusual nature of his death that caught my ear, stabbed in the leg via the poisoned tip of an umbrella by an alleged KGB agent; it sounded like something straight out of an episode of ‘The Avengers’. Markov was working for the BBC World Service at the time, broadcasting vociferous critiques of the Soviet satellite state that his country had become; assassinated by such strangely surreal means whilst waiting for a bus, Markov died four days later, his death attributed to the drug ricin.

Echoes of Markov’s murder resurfaced almost thirty years later when another ‘dissident’, Alexander Litvinenko, was also poisoned in London; this time round, the victim was himself a former member of the KGB and its successor the FSB, so he knew all the dirty tricks. That didn’t prevent him from sipping tea spiked with polonium-210 in one of the capital’s sushi restaurants when meeting up with two other ex-KGB officers, just a couple of weeks after Litvinenko had accused Vladimir Putin of ordering the assassination of Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya.

The sinister spectre of both these infamously odd, seemingly state-sponsored killings has been revived in recent weeks following the murder of Kim Jong-nam, older half-brother of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur Airport on 13 February. Grainy CCTV footage of the incident in which a young woman approached the unfortunate 45-year-old exile from his country and appeared to splash liquid on his face emerged a few days later, though it is far-from conclusive evidence as to what actually happened. Nevertheless, arrests swiftly followed, and two women from Indonesia and Vietnam respectively are to be charged with the murder and could face Malaysia’s mandatory death sentence if found guilty.

Although Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong have received the most publicity in the aftermath of the assassination, Malaysian authorities have indicated as many as 10 were involved in the plot, with South Korea claiming at least four of the suspects are spies working for their next-door neighbour. The defence of the two young women poised to be charged is that they thought they were part of a TV prank, paid around £70 to smear the face of a stranger with what they were told was baby oil. It may sound an especially ludicrous explanation, though this story is riddled with bizarre elements.

North Korea is in denial that the Macau-based victim was even their supreme ruler’s sibling, though the poison applied to his countenance – toxic nerve agent VX – is not the kind to be found on your average high-street chemist’s shelf; it is classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the UN and has been banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention since 1993; its particular rarity means the likelihood of it being in any hands other than that of a government is disputable.

VX is an apparently odourless lethal liquid that assaults the transmission of nerve impulses and Kim Jong-nam died in great pain within 15-20 minutes of the attack, despite informing airport security of what had happened to him immediately thereafter. It was an unimaginably unpleasant way to go, though the half-brother of Kim Jong-un has been on the North Korean hit-list for several years.

He was the first-born son of the late Kim Jong-il and had been earmarked as the former ruler’s successor until apprehended trying to enter Japan on a fake passport in 2001. Since then, he has established himself as a vocal critic of the country and of his younger half-brother’s regime. Considering the kind of regime Kim Jong-un oversees, it was perhaps inevitable that Kim Jong-nam’s life would end in tears.

Other high-profile fugitives from North Korea have gone to ground in the wake of the Kim Jong-nam murder, fearing for their own safety more than ever. So far, North Korea’s posturing has been manifested in its periodical nuclear testing, whereas this is a new and scary development for those who have managed to flee the most repressive nation on the planet. The two hapless girls who acted as Kim Jong-nam’s assassins would appear to be classic patsies, arriving in Malaysia with high hopes of fame and fortune before ending up working in massage parlours and as gentlemen’s escorts. Targeted to carry the can by whoever planned the operation, they are clearly not the masterminds behind the murder yet will still stand trial for it.

When it comes to assassinations of a thorn in a regime’s side, an unhinged individual can certainly strike when the mood takes them, but governments supported by a secret service network with a licence to kill are far more effective when it comes to liquidating their enemies. It doesn’t matter if it’s Obama taking the credit for ‘taking out’ Bin Laden or that nice Mr Cameron endorsing the murder of two British Jihadist suspects fighting on a foreign field, the end result is the same – as Tsar Vladimir and the crackpot running North Korea know only too well.

© The Editor


koreaIt has to be said – old-school crackpot dictators are a little thinner on the ground than they used to be. Yes, there’s Assad, but as far as psychopaths go he’s rather a weedy-looking runt of a man, short on insane charisma and therefore hardly worthy of comparison to Idi Amin, Ferdinand Marcos or Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Ever since Gaddafi received rough justice at the hands of the Libyan people, nutters in theatrical military dress or ones staging extravagant coronation ceremonies that bankrupted their country appear to be on the wane. And, mad though he may be, Donald Trump is aiming for democratic election as his nation’s leader as opposed to seizing power in a coup. Ah, but there’s still North Korea; and there’s still Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-un ticks a fair few of the crackpot dictator boxes, for sure. He’s never seen in anything other than his regulation Mao-style uniform; he has that strangely severe crop with little at the sides or back but plenty on top that was once de rigueur for members of bands clogging up the 80s indie charts; he has an unsettlingly smooth, plastic countenance that Hollywood has-beens would die for; he inherited the physical leadership of North Korea from his late father, who nevertheless remains celestial leader of the country for all eternity; he holds more official titles than he can probably even list; he has presided over numerous purges and executions on a whim, including members of his own family; he is head of an archaic Stalinist regime that controls every aspect of its oppressed subjects’ lives, as though (as Christopher Hitchens once memorably observed) using ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ as an instruction manual; he is provocatively antagonistic towards the USA and the West; and he also now has his finger on the nuclear button. Yes, I think he’s worthy of a spot in the pantheon under discussion.

North Korea’s much-publicised nuclear programme has hit the headlines again over the past few days, but it now has an official history that stretches back a decade – according to the not-necessarily reliable PR machine of the ‘Democratic Republic’, at least. A 2006 underground explosion was detected by outside sources, and the North Koreans claimed it was their first nuclear test. Reports that the country was indeed a nuclear power followed over the coming months and years as the alleged underground hydrogen bomb explosions continued to register on monitoring mechanisms way beyond the borders of the secret state that is Kim Jong-un’s private kingdom.

During the Cold War, North Korea allegedly requested assistance in developing nuclear power from both the Soviet Union and China, though only the former gave any kind of help, acting in an advisory capacity to build research reactors from the mid-60s to the late 70s. At the time, North Korea was a pretty minor member of the Communist club, with most of Eastern Europe answerable to Moscow, and China the dominant power behind the so-called Bamboo Curtain when it and the USSR were at odds with each other.

However, in the twenty-first century, the changing landscape of political ideology has pushed North Korea to the forefront of global tensions, with this last obstinate bastion of increasingly isolated designs for life being one of the few remaining countries still basing itself on an outdated model long since discarded by former Soviet satellite states and even China, following its phenomenally successful move into the free market. There is a novelty factor in place today, both in terms of the country itself and its worryingly Loony Tunes leader. North Korea is a curious anachronism in the Global Village, with only the testimony of the few to have escaped its clutches serving as reportage from the forbidden zone.

One unsung area of the North Korean economy has been its export of ballistic missiles, though speaking as an Englishman whose own nation’s booming arms industry is currently profiting from Saudi strikes on Yemen I have no grounds to display superior smugness. Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Iran and Syria have all benefitted from North Korea’s militaristic hardware, yet the United Nations has still imposed sanctions against the country without any discernible impact upon Kim Jong-un’s oblivious and immune regime. Too-close-for-comfort neighbour South Korea has become understandably jumpy with such an unstable enemy on its doorstep and has been forced to issue details of its plans to obliterate the North Korean capital of Pyongyang if its half-brother extends its nuclear experiments to the point where it can be perceived as a serious threat to its genuinely democratic sibling, claiming Pyongyang will be ‘reduced to ashes and removed from the map.’

Earlier this year, North Korea declared it had sent a satellite into space, provoking condemnation from the US as well as near-neighbour Japan, and even China – traditionally the country’s staunchest ally in the region. China’s support remains crucial to North Korea’s continuing existence as a bonkers rogue nation, and in theory China could bring North Korea to its knees without a single shot being fired. But Beijing is playing a very clever slow game where its Communist kindergarten colleague is concerned and the jury is out on how far it will allow the country to go when China itself is so preoccupied with building bridges in the West and expanding its business interests in Africa.

How much longer China’s attempts at projecting a professional and reformed image whilst supporting an embarrassing throwback like North Korea will last remains to be seen; but if North Korea keeps on generating so much bad publicity, it’s only a matter of time. As for the rest of the world, we can only observe events from afar and hope that the Supreme Leader meets his maker before his evident insanity curtails our own future ambitions.

Anyway, if you require an antidote to that gloomy prognosis, here’s some satire…

© The Editor


GodzillaBrits say Falklands; Argentines say Malvinas; Japan says Senkaku; China says Diaoyu. Territorial claims are funny old things, often inciting the most fervent of passions over the least obviously appealing lumps of rock. Most such claims stretch back centuries and only acquire sudden value when ownership is threatened by a rival claim, usually provoked by the discovery of something with a far greater value lurking in the neighbourhood. In the case of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, these uninhabited locations resembling the landscapes upon which Godzilla battled his fellow mutant beasts are currently at the centre of a dispute between Japan and China, a dispute placing one of the most fragile fault-lines of the Far East in peril.

The waters encircled by Taiwan, China, South Korea and Japan boast a proliferation of tiny islands that even outnumber the similarly scattered little landmasses dotted around the tip of Scotland; for Japan, the most prominent served as a convenient barrier between it and the US Army during the Second World War, though the Senkaku Islands are more distanced from the Japanese mainland, closer to Taiwan. There were no real territorial claims made upon them in the eras of the ancient Chinese and Japanese Empires; British ships referred to them as the Pinnacle Islands and their value was solely as navigational markers.

The success of Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894/5) saw the dominance of the East Asian region shift from China to the victor, marking Japan’s beginnings as a major military power that would ultimately carry it all the way to Hiroshima. Although Korea was regarded as the main prize of the conflict, it was the Senkaku Islands that were first claimed as imperial possessions in the aftermath of the War, and China didn’t seem particularly concerned. A Japanese fish processing plant was established on one of the islands, Uotsuri-shima, which remained active until WWII; the very presence of the plant on the island appeared to certify the claims that it and the neighbouring islands had been incorporated into Japan’s sovereign territory.

Even when the Senkaku Islands fell under American control following Japan’s surrender in 1945, China wasn’t especially vocal about ownership claims. China only really began to make a fuss at the end of the 1960s when the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East discovered oil and gas resources situated around the islands. Despite this potentially profitable future for the vicinity, the US returned ownership to Japan in 1971, something that prompted Chinese territorial claims to become official Peking policy. Taiwan had also been ceded to Japan in 1895, and it was the return of Taiwan into Chinese hands after the Second World War that China now retrospectively says should have gone hand-in-hand with the acquisition of the Senkaku Islands. History is certainly a flexible friend when it comes to territorial claims.

Bizarrely, some of the islands are privately-owned and are rented by the Japanese Government, though each outright purchase by Japan is regarded as a provocative gesture by China. One of the islands is used as a practice range by the US military, maintaining the presence America has had in the region ever since it funded the post-war financial reconstruction of Japan. That part of the demilitarisation of Japan involved the US taking on the role of the country’s defender in the event of any attack places America in a difficult position during the current dispute. Add the unstable spectre of North Korea to the equation and it’s plain to see how delicate the situation in the Pacific really is.

Strategically, the Senkaku Islands are situated in significant shipping lanes as well as fruitful fishing grounds, not to mention the oil and gas reserves, of course; but they also serve as a microcosm of the battle for control of the region between China and America. Over the last four years, China has deliberately flouted Japan’s ownership of the islands by sailing its ships into Japanese territorial waters and has also created the ‘East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone’ in an area covering Senkaku, one that the penetration of by non-Chinese aircraft apparently requires adherence to rules laid down in Beijing. Neither Japan nor the US have adhered to these rules.

Old enmities between China and Japan have been revived by this dispute, ones that rouse nationalist passions on both sides and ones that politicians of the respective nations seek to appease in the eternal quest for popularity. But while the world’s attention appears perennially focused on the Middle East, it is perhaps the Far East we should be keeping a closer eye on, especially when one considers that a couple of months ago three Russian warships – accompanied by a Chinese Navy frigate – sailed past the Senkaku Islands in what could well be perceived as an act of choreographed provocation. Any Russian intervention in disputes between nations rarely bodes well for a peaceful resolution.

© The Editor