North Korea: Oops, We Forgot Dear Leader's Birthday Again

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes her first overseas jaunt -- to Asia -- the words "North Korea" and "Kim Jong-il" are being frequently bandied about - since both South Korea and Japan are petrified that North Korea, which holds nuclear weapons in its arsenal, will launch an attack. Those fears have only been heightened lately with North Korea's rumbling about testing its long range missiles.

Never mind that North Korea's last test of the missile lasted all of 14 seconds before it plopped into the sea. Like a baby banging on his high chair tray, wacked-out "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il (or the powers representing him since he had a stroke last year) is/are demanding attention from the U.S., and while Clinton has said the US is conditionally open to normalizing relations, the Obama administration - which snubbed North Korea, by ignoring requests to attend the inauguration ceremony -- could have made a nod in North Korea's direction, by making the simple gesture of sending a birthday card for Kim Jong-il's birthday -- which was on February 16th.

I'm not saying such a birthday card should have said "We applaud the fact you were born" or "here's to many more with you in the driver's seat." But it could have said, "Here's to the birth of more civil relations and more open dialogue between our two countries."

The reason that a birthday card would have been helpful is the day is a major to-do to Kim - a day of spectacular displays of dancing, singing, parades, flower ceremonies and placards held up by tens of thousands to form dazzling designs. He's said to get awfully miffed when it's forgotten, as it typically is by leaders of those countries that matter - and the gifts he has received over the years are so precious that they are, says French photographer Eric Lafforgue who recently visited North Korea, displayed in a guarded museum build into rock, to withstand attacks. As Lafforgue (who contributed fantastic photos to my book, What Every American Should Know about the Middle East) notes in his upcoming photo-essay book - You'll Never Walk North Korea -- the collection of presents held within was certainly a national treasure.


-Did you enjoy the visit Mr. Eric?

-Yes! I can understand why the gifts are so well protected... silver cheese sticks, 2 cuckoo clocks from Pakistan, a model airplane, a plasma screen, a really kitsch living room, golf clubs, a Guinness book of records certified table, a stuffed crocodile holding a set of glasses given by the Sandinistas, weapons from Uganda, a china set, 2 paper weights with turtles inside the glass, commemorative plates, a Plexiglas aircraft carrier from USSR, a silver Kalashnikov from Iran, a plate with Karl Marx's face on it, a teddy bear, a train wagon, a tajine dish, Cuban suitcases made out of crocodile, a tiger skin, a ball signed by Michael Jordan... [the last a gift from then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 2000] Incredible! No one has dared make a mockery of the Leaders...

-And you know Mr. Eric, if you should spend just one minute in front of each gift, it would take you more than a year to see everything!

This year Kim Jong-il's birthday bash was more "celebratory" than usual, accompanied by the moving of missiles and bellowing about how North Korea has every right to develop its "space program."

Beyond all the saber-rattling, the bottom line is that while South Korea frets about what will happen when Kim dies (Seoul fears that North Koreans will come flooding in), North Korea is worried silly that the U.S. will attack.

Despite the heavy US troop presence in South Korea and along the DMZ that divides North and South Korea, site of frequent war games with the US and its southern ally, such an attack seems unlikely - unless North Korea strikes first. Here's to trying to minimize that possibility by sending at least a belated birthday note.

-- Melissa Rossi, the author of What Every American Should Know about the Middle East, is currently working on a book about Asia -- Afghanistan and East.