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Greetings, Earthlings! And now, the news…

October 23rd, 2003

For several years, I’ve been obsessed with Kim Jong-Il.  Fuelled by the lurid stories of high-ranking defectors, the erratic behavior and rhetorical histrionics of the regime, the Orwellian cult of personality, and the obvious contrast between the people’s famine and the Leader’s feasts, there has developed a rich body of literature debating whether Kim Jong-Il is a rational-but-isolated dictator or a cruel-and-demented pervert.  The hereditary potentate of an isolated, impoverished Communist kleptocracy, Kim Jong Il doesn’t do interviews, and never speaks in public, so it’s not easy to get a grip on his personality.

My obsession started around the time of Kim Il-Sung’s death, when I witnessed on CNN the North Koreans’ jaw-dropping mass spasm of grief.  How strange to learn that North Korea’s Communist crown prince was into fast cars, hot chicks, and French brandy.  The last few years have brought a series of grippng tales from inside the Hermit Kingdom:  “I Made Pizza for Kim Jong-Il” (part 1, part 2, part 3), by the Milanese chef Ermanno Furlanis, who spent several bizarre weeks teaching the art of gourmet pizza to North Korean army officers; Vladimir Pulikovsky’s tales of bon vivant Kim Jong-Il’s raucous, wine-soaked train sojourn across Russia in 2001.  Tales of arbitrary state terror and inhuman suffering in North Korean gulags.  The admission that teams of North Korean frogmen had kidnapped Japanese citizens — including a beautician, a schoolgirl, and a couple on a date — right off the beach. The hardy partying, heavy drinking, and random killings. All utterly bizarre and completely riveting. Just last weekend, the cover story of the New York Times Magazine featured Kim Jong Il in “The Last Emperor“, arguing unconvincingly for the he’s-not-as-insane-as-you-think school.

Of all the available sources of information about Kim Jong-Il, though, there is nothing as entertaining as the English-language version of the DPRK’s official Korean Central News Agency. What’s most fun is not the superheated rhetoric, the hilariously aggressive defensiveness, or the fantasy-world reports of international friendship and solidarity with the North Korean regime, but the translator’s English.  The stories are written in language so purple and affected it sounds like something from a 1930s B-movie.  Here’s today’s top story, for example:

S. Korean Authorities’ Treachery Flailed

    Pyongyang, October 22 (KCNA) — Rodong Sinmun today in a signed commentary brands the decision made by the south Korean authorities to additionally dispatch troops to Iraq as a product of the U.S. persistent pressure and as anti-national and anti-peace moves of pro-U.S. forces. The south Korean authorities are going to drive many young south Koreans as bullet shields of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces to please the U.S. despite the opposition and denunciation of the entire nation. Dismissing this as a dastardly act of submitting to the U.S. and an intolerable anti-national criminal act, the commentary continues:
    It is Choe Pyong Ryol, representative of the Grand National Party, and its followers who busied themselves to push the additional troop dispatch to Iraq as requested by the U.S., their master. Traitors who betrayed the nation offering great many fellow countrymen as cannon fodder of the U.S. war of aggression obsessed with greed for power and dependence on outsiders and dirty political swindlers will never be able to go scot-free.
    We can never tolerate the criminal act of driving young south Koreans to the war of aggression launched by the U.S. imperialists, the commentary says, urging the south Korean authorities to ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by the additional troop dispatch and unconditionally withdraw the wrong anti-national decision.

When’s the last time you read a headline about “treachery flailed”?  Or saw an official national news agency use phrases like “dastardly act”, “bullet shields,” and “dirty political swindlers”?  Or check out this late-breaking news bulletin:

Kim Jong Il’s Songun Politics Praised

    Pyongyang, October 22 (KCNA) — Mohamed Dioue Fofana, secretary general of the African Regional Committee for the Study of the Juche Idea who visited the DPRK, expressed full support to the Songun politics of the DPRK. As leader Kim Jong Il has pursued the Songun politics, the Korean people have bravely foiled the anti-DPRK moves of the imperialist allied forces including the U.S. to win victories, he said, and continued:
    The reality of the DPRK clearly proves the truth that a country remains shining and the nation strong when guided by a great leader.
    The reality of Afghanistan and Iraq which find themselves in such a miserable position as they are because they were weak in defence capability and the independent stand convinced me that the Songun politics of the DPRK is the most powerful political mode in the present times.
    Thanks to Kim Jong Il’s Songun politics the DPRK is known as a country steering the world politics and a dignified country which nobody can dare provoke.
    It was a clear proof of the validity and vitality of the Songun politics that progressive people of the world highly praised Kim Jong Il’s Songun politics as the guiding idea of the 21st century at a national seminar in New Delhi in August.
    Kim Jong Il’s Songun politics is a model of independent politics in the 21st century.

[In case that’s not crystal clear, the “Juche idea” is the state religion of North Korea — a post-Marxist combination of self-reliance and independence that means that foreigners shouldn’t tell the DPRK what to do, that citizens should always do exactly what the state says, and, conversely, that citizens should try to solve their personal problems (like starvation) on their own without bothering the authorities in Pyongyang, who are very busy trying to learn how to cook a decent gourmet pizza.  “Songun” translates roughly to “army-based”, so “Songun politics” refers to the policy of giving all the good food, housing, clothing, and electricity to the North Korean army, with any leftovers going to the rest of the population.  By the way, I will gladly pay good money to anyone who can put me in contact with “Mohamed Dioue Fofana, secretary general of the African Regional Committee for the Study of the Juche Idea”.] 

Without a doubt, the Korean Central News Agency is a daily must-read.

And whatever your tolerance for kimjongilia, I recommend Kim Jong Il (the illmatic)’s Journal, which somehow gets unprecedented realtime access to transcripts of the Dear Leader’s online chat sessions with Saddam Hussein, G. W. Bush, and Dick Cheney.

More VOIP: Query to Kevin Werbach

October 23rd, 2003

Wise commentator (and my lawschool classmate) Kevin Werbach thinks I’ve got the political fallout of the Minnesota PUC vs. Vonage decision at least partially backwards.  Says Kevin:

I actually think the Minnesota decision could lessen the immediate pressure to adopt a rational framework at the federal level. Judge Davis effectively preserved the status quo, in which VOIP services are de facto unregulated. The ones upset about that situation are the square-state Senators worried about universal service funds, but they haven’t made much noise since the FCC turned back their challenge in 1998. What’s much more likely to provoke FCC action is a patchwork of states attempting to regulate VOIP. Partly because it puts in place an outcome contrary to the one the FCC generally supports, and partly because it’s state regulators stepping into what the FCC feels is its turf. Don’t underestimate the power of that second factor.

Kevin’s got a much better sense of The Way Things Are in Washington, especially at the FCC, so I challenge his thinking at my peril.  But, in the interest of furthering my education, I’ll take the bait and push back a little.

There are two ways that a comprehensive reform of federal regulation of the telecom sector (in response to the emerging techical and economic realities of VOIP) can be accomplished:  (1) the FCC rewriting its thicket of regulations implementing the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and/or (2) Congress rewriting the Telecommunications Act itself.  In scenario (1), the FCC would have to reform its regulations within the ever-blurrier “telecommunications service” vs. “information service” paradigm, tinker with the key definitions, reconfigure the consequent regulatory rights and responsibilities, and, if all goes well, generate a semi-rational regulatory outcome within an increasingly irrational statutory framework.  In scenario (2), Congress would have the ability to craft a truly rational converged statutory framework that would then be the basis for a truly rational set of implementing regulations.

Kevin is absolutely right that Judge Davis’s Minnesota PUC vs. Vonage decision lets the VOIP-friendly FCC off the hook for now, because it preserves the status quo of unregulated VOIP and prevents the state regulatory authorities from stepping into what the FCC clearly thinks to be its turf.  So scenario (1) becomes less likely.  But my contention is that the Minnesota decision makes Congressional intervension much more likely.  And not just because the square-state Senators are going to be agitated about universal service funds.  The real hydraulic pressure on Congress to act is going to come from the big telecom operators, who (a) are annoyed that upstart VOIP services are able to offer cheap phone connectivity without any of the regulatory pain, (b) recognize the competitive threat VOIP presents, (c) are aware that their own initiatives to deploy VOIP services are going to be expensive and time-consuming, due to the tremendous engineering challenge of making PSTN and VOIP coexist within the same network, (d) have lots and lots of lobbying muscle and political money to throw around, and (e) have every incentive to put the big hurt on their allies in the Senate and House until they act to harmonize, somehow, the competitive ruleset applicable to fixed and wireless PSTN and VOIP services. 

Given the VOIP-friendliness and relative competence of the FCC and the special-interest-prone political realities of Washington, it seems clear that FCC action is more likely to produce a rational and technically-clueful result.  But I suspect that Judge Davis’s ruling has unleashed a clutch of telecom Furies that will only gather strength as they screech and swoop and hound Congress to take action.  Whether the FCC might ward off these Furies and obviate the need for Congressional action by moving to fashion a reformed (and pre-emptive) regulatory framework on its own is a question I’d pitch back to Kevin.

More broadly, I’m interested to hear what you Gentle Readers think I’m missing or getting wrong.