A warhead versus AlphaGo

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A warhead versus AlphaGo

A bizarre image of a head of state recently made news. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was seen in a propagandist video clip and photos with a purported nuclear warhead. North Korean state media released the photos publicizing the latest feat of miniaturizing nuclear weapons that can be fitted onto a ballistic missile. It was outright bragging about what should be highly secretive weaponry.

Kim may have wanted to test if Seoul and the international community would be equally cool about an actual nuclear warhead as they had been about hearing Pyongyang had tested a hydrogen bomb. He may have thought it would upset the planned South Korea-U.S. military exercises. He figured citizens in Seoul would be terrified and demand its government stop pressuring Pyongyang lest it would fire one of the weapons. This must have gone through his head as Kim posed proudly with nuclear scientists and the supposed warhead.

But his plan of sending the world into collective shock with a round object claimed to be a device capable of containing a uranium or plutonium bomb was derailed by a board game tournament. The world took little notice of the childish showmanship from Pyongyang, as it was entirely engrossed in a historic match between a man and machine - the professional Go player Lee Se-dol versus the artificial intelligence program AlphaGo developed by Google’s DeepMind.

Pyongyang’s propagandist campaign to dominate news headlines with Kim Jong-un’s photos misfired. While the rest of world was excited about the advance of artificial intelligence, Pyongyang was desperately clinging to outdated weaponry. North Korea was probably the only place not following the Go tournament.

Kim stole the international spotlight when he, young and overseas-educated, took over the helm to the last hereditary dictatorship four years ago. North Korea-watchers believed a young leader, who had experienced the riches of the Western world, would be different from his warlike grandfather Kim Il-sung and highly secretive father Kim Jong-il. In his first public address in April 2012, the young leader promised North Korean people better life in a socialist society. He was seen watching dancers dressed as Disney characters a few months later. He then declared 20 special economic zones.

But the novelty wore off shortly. The young and inexperienced leader became more and more obsessed with absolute power. He frantically built up his personality cult and carried out violent tactics to strengthen his power base. Glorification of his hereditary blood reached its peak. His birth mother, Ko Yong-hui, who died in 2004, is expected to gain the title of “Dear Mother.”

Many of the top cadre members have been purged and executed under the erratic young leader’s reign. Aged military generals and party chiefs who had served under his father were killed for dozing off or talking back. The veterans in their 60s and 70s were removed from grace, humiliated and brutally executed. The elite community is said to be stewing with silent anger and resentment over the brutality.

The strongest-yet United Nations sanctions arrived at such a sensitive time. Since the strict trade ban and freight surveillance was enacted, North Korean crews have been turned away and expelled from ports. Freight carriers are forced to sail without any guidance from host countries. The people’s lives will inevitably become tougher.

The young North Koreans who were deployed to work at the construction site for a power station under Mt. Paekdu in the freezing cold have now been called upon for a special 70-day war game ahead of the Workers’ Party Convention in May.

Yet Kim Jong-un is oblivious to the escalating cries and disgruntlement from the people. It is scary to hear him talk about preemptive nuclear strikes. Even his father was not so audacious as to bluntly refer to South Korea as the enemy. But there is no one around him who dares to talk sense into him. The defense, unification and foreign policy command are all busy kowtowing to the ruthless leader. The vehement tirade about President Park Geun-hye comes out of desperation not to fall out of favor with their unpredictable leader. Only blind loyalty and flowery words can save them.

Alexander Fadeyev (1901-56), a Soviet writer and champion of Joseph Stalin, committed suicide after leaving a note for the Central Committee, decrying the debasement of the leadership. Such outbursts of condemnation could one day fill the streets of Pyongyang.

JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 11, Page 28

The author is a special writer for unification for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Young-jong

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