It was the noted atheist Christopher Hitchens who remarked in a debate before his untimely death last week, that if indeed there was "all-seeing God" watching over us, "it would be like living in North Korea."
And now the latest in the family of hereditary dictators of NK has died at age 69 -- Kim Jong-il -- leaving his third and youngest (known) son, Kim Jong-un, as heir to impoverished country at age 28.
Although North Korea is a paranoid state where the regime keeps an "all-seeing eye" on everyone to make sure citizens aren't subversively listening to the Voice of America on pre-set radios, it's difficult to take the country seriously.
Yes, the Kims have been adept at intimidating the world -- first with Kim Il-sung, placed in power by Stalin and known as "Great Leader," who attacked South Korea in 1950, followed by his heir in 1994, Kim Jong-il, known as "Dear Leader," who threatens neighbors with nuclear weapons, and now by his son Kim Jong-un, who is an unknown factor and dubbed for the moment "Successor Leader."
Put bluntly, North Korea is a fruitcake regime. Without anything in the way of resources -- except soldiers and nutbar leaders who threaten and bluff -- North Korea has a first strike potential to do considerable damage to South Korea, but then would be obliterated if America retaliated.
Russia and China have to be embarrassed by North Korea, whose propaganda machine depicted Kim Jong-il as a jet fighter pilot, a composer of operas, a movie producer with a photographic memory, and a golfing phenom who in his first attempt at the game scored 11 holes in one.
Nuclear arsenal or not, how did one take this guy and his regime seriously?
That's part of the trouble. There's no guarantee the country will act sanely with the current leadership it must worship on pain of death.
While the new "Kim" on top -- Kim Jong-un -- is unknown, odds are he's as nutty as his dad. On second-thought, maybe not. He's got generals around him who'll curb (or try to curb) any excessive loony tunes emerging. Dear Leader dad was one for the ages.
Reality is, we know more about the dark side of the moon than we do about the inner workings of North Korea. What we do know is that every year there is starvation, as crops fail and the country's budget is dedicated to the military. Appeals for foreign aid are invariably answered (mostly by generous South Korea) and food aid goes to the army.
It's been noted that the Kims may be the only fat people in North Korea -- papa being addicted (we're told) to imported lobsters and cognac. When he was in school, Kim Jong-il was one of those rare students who allegedly could repair motor cars, or sewing machines while fine-tuning electric motors and inventing electronic wizardry. Smart kid.
American presidents are particularly vulnerable to appeals of hunger -- as well as being susceptible to gestures of blackmail: Give us aid or we'll test nuclear weapons. That sort of stuff that U.S. administrations take more seriously than they should.
Japan is vulnerable to nuclear blackmail. North Korea missile and rocket testing that goes astray periodically threatens Japan.
All in the name of gaining respect for North Korean bellicosity.
While threats of war are nonsense -- terrorism is very real.
Last year North Korea torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 43 sailors. As if to refute South Korea's accusations of aggression, North Korea bombarded a South Korean island. That's the sort of country it is, under the Kim dynasty. If you say we don't want peace -- we'll kill you.
In the past, the late and now lamented (in the streets of Pyongyang) "Dear Leader" was credited with a 1983 bombing in Myanmar that killed 17 South Korean officials negotiating with the Burmese. And then blowing up a Korean airline, killing 115. All when Kim Jong-il headed NK's espionage service, before succeeding his dad.
Some years ago, around the time that Kim Il-sung was fading, South Korea's Institute for North Korean Studies published a book: The Son Also Rises, which documented the family's history, noting that uncles, aunts and offspring "are all in the gravy up to the elbow."
As if to enhance North Korea's goofiness, when Kim Il-sung died, he was declared "President for Life," which would have been more accurate it if it had been for "afterlife." Anyway, Kim Jong-il never took the title "President," but preferred to be "chairman," and "Supreme Commander."
What happens now that the world has a young, sole leader in North Korea is anyone's guess. Likely nothing -- for a while. We'll know soon enough if Kim Jong-un is as nutty as his dad, who although crazy, was not stupid: witness how he persuaded the West to leap through hoops. What chance does the kid have with a dad like his?
One thing is certain -- China will do what it can to harness North Korea not to be foolish and do something provocative that may jeopardize China's commercial dealings with the developed world.
That's the good news. The bad news is another son is also rising . . . .