It was the summer of 1974, and I was what they call in the army "short." That means nearing the end of your military duty, when you feel freer than you actually are. I was in a small town called Schwaebisch Gmuend in the Neckar valley at the time. I do not know why they sent me there. I did not question their decision very much, for I was glad not to be in Southeast Asia dodging bullets.
I was in the process of turning in my equipment. I had dragged it all down there in a big bag and was slowly advancing from one station to the next, pulling out items one by one as they were requested. I had just turned in my helmet and was noticing that the bag had become quite light when the next clerk asked me for my ammunition belt. I rummaged around in the bag and found that it was not there! In a flash I remembered that I had never been issued one. I had been working in an office, where ammunition was not needed. But before I could say anything, he smiled in that contented sort of way an automobile person does when he tells you your alternator is shot, and began asking me for other things he correctly suspected I did not have. At the end of this deliberate, long and maddeningly unnecessary interchange he said with sarcasm in his voice and pleasure in his eyes: WHY do you not have these things? I am afraid I lost control at that point. I replied calmly: Because you IDIOTS never issued them to me. I was short, you see.
Then I got a lesson I will never forget. He replied, equally calmly: Then I will charge you for everything. This was bad. It was a lot of stuff, and at government rates it would cost a fortune. But at that moment a person in the back I didn't know interrupted the conversation to ask what was missing. After listening quietly he announced that, quite by coincidence, he had just found extras of those particular things moments before. So I did not have to pay.
The moral of this story, which we all learn eventually, is that you should never accuse a weak person in a position to hurt you of a deficiency he actually has. The reason is that his feelings matter more at that moment than validity of the criticism. Indeed the more valid the criticism the more it angers him and thus the more trouble it causes.
I have never been to North Korea. I am not averse to going, but I have visited communist countries before and find that when you have seen one you have seen them all. I do urge young people to visit, since theirs may be the last generation to witness the excesses of socialism first hand. What you observe is massive, endemic weakness, and people everywhere, including high levels of government, who do not like being accused of deficiencies they actually have.
I think that the key to understanding North Koreans may be that they are Koreans. What I mean by this is that their especially virulent brand of communism has its roots in the same imperial traditions, the same complex historical relationship with China, the same foreign occupation and the same civil war that so bedevil their southern relatives. I think they are proud people for whom it is easier to do things they know are wrong than to admit they have made a mistake. That's not a uniquely Korean trait, as my story demonstrates, but it may be amplified by the Korean historical experience. I am not the least impressed by their ability to make nuclear weapons. Lots of people can make nuclear weapons. It isn't an act of strength to test a nuclear weapon in this part of the world but an act of weakness. If the rumors are true that they are selling fissionable material to terrorists and drugs to the Yakuza, those are acts of weakness too.
One week after returning my equipment I received my discharge and became a free man. I promptly burned my boots and took a train to Spain, where I met some girls. That, however, is a different tale.
[Copyright 2005 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]