When our public officials fall asleep while attending a meeting, or an official function, the standard Nigerian reaction is to have a hearty laugh at their expense. Harmless laughter. You’d remember many photographs of our lawmakers turning the National Assembly into an extension of their bedrooms, sometimes snoring loudly in the middle of a heated and loud debate: not that many of them would be of much use anyway even if they were awake. Governors, commissioners, high ranking government officials have also all been caught at one time or the other, sleeping on duty. Well, those whose circadian switches go off like that should count themselves really lucky they are Nigerians. If they were to try that in North Korea, they will face the firing squad!
Yes, in North Korea, such careless sleeping attracts the death penalty. In that country of 25 million people, there is a despot in power. He is Kim Jong-un. At 32, he is the world’s youngest leader but probably the most dangerous man in the world. He rules his country like a concentration camp and continues to commit some of the world’s most frightening crimes against humanity. Human lives mean nothing to him. He is so desperately paranoid, the slightest act of irritation in his presence could make him commit murder. His word is law. He is supreme commander, judge and executioner.
I was literally shivering when I read the latest horror story from Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. Two high-ranking officials were ordered executed by the dictator. Ri Yong Jin, a senior official at the Ministry of Education, was accused of putting up an “inappropriate posture” while “The Marshal” was delivering a speech. Ri Yong Jin’s crime was that he dozed off. Former Agriculture Minister, Hwang Min’s crime was that he dared to disagree with Kim’s guidelines for designing a working policy on agriculture. He developed his own ideas. He used his own initiative. He was accused of trying to undermine the leader. Both Jin and Min were marched to the stakes within 24 hours and executed with anti-aircraft guns. Kim Jong-un is not satisfied with an ordinary gun; his victims have to face anti-aircraft guns, and you can imagine the impact of such a special purpose gun, targeted at a human being.
Since assuming office in 2011, Kim Jong-un has murdered more than 70 persons, including elite government officials who all lived in fear. His own uncle, Jang Song-taek, was one of the earliest victims at the beginning of his dictatorship. Others include a military officer who was executed for drinking during the official mourning period for Kim Jong II, Kim Jong-un’s father, and the proximate genetic source of his megalomania. In 2015, the architect who designed a new airport terminal in Pyongyang was executed because Marshal Kim did not like his design! And Ri Yong Jin won’t be the first man to die for succumbing to the call of nature. In April, former Defence Minister Hyong Yong-Choi also faced the firing squad for falling asleep during an event. The North Korean Human Rights situation is a threat to the whole of mankind. The use of execution, extra-judicial killing, torture and forced labour as tools of political control is one of the worst abuses of power ever known.
The United States has imposed sanctions on Kim Jong-un. The United Nations has also officially condemned his atrocities, but Kim Jong-un is dangerous, again because of the nuclear power and missiles at his disposal. Starkly egoistic as he is, he could throw the world into utter chaos, were he to press a nuclear button. The United Nations Security Council has an obligation to take the situation in North Korea more seriously. Kim Jong-un’s matter should be an urgent matter of concern for the International Criminal Court (ICC).
I mean, to kill a man for falling asleep? Polysomnographers insist that there is nothing any one can do about sleep. Even when you don’t suffer from somnipathy, when it is time for the body clock to switch off, it does so on its own. The best option is to give in to nature so the body can rejuvenate. Many public officials and business executives run crazy schedules. They over-stretch themselves, either travelling over long distances and rushing from one meeting to another, without any opportunity to take a few moments of rest - jet-lagged, tired or exhausted, they could doze off. This is why at many meetings, there is always a coffee pot on standby or sweets or as I have seen, kolanuts and just about anything that you can put in your mouth to enable you focus on the event at hand. But even these offer limited help. Balancing work with rest is often a challenge for busy people. The whole world knows this, except Kim Jong-un who is so insecure he cannot stand other people’s humanity.
I think of all the government officials in Nigeria who sleep during meetings. If they were to be in North Korea, they would all be dead by now. I recall incidents involving soldiers on parade, even soldiers of the Guards’ Brigade, suddenly slumping, drawing sympathy, and one particular incident involving a former Minister of State for Defence, who suddenly slumped while standing at attention at a military event. Try that in North Korea: immediate execution by a firing squad would be the result. And if I were North Korean myself, and I had served as official spokesperson to Kim Jong-un, I would have been executed by a firing squad long before 2015.
I used to doze off too at meetings. My boss ran a tough schedule and he had more stamina than his staff. We could return from a foreign trip by 2 am, and we would all be expected to be at work by 8 am. If you know how these things work, it could take another two hours to properly disengage and go home, leaving you with only two hours of sleep. In our case, the principal would have been up and about by 6 am (only God knows how he always did it) to attend morning devotion and spend some time in the gym, all before 8 am. We the principal aides would struggle to arrive, still sleepy but struggling to appear capable. Sometimes, the source of the grogginess may not be jet-lag but just work (and God, we worked!).
From one meeting to the other or a function after another, in the course of the day, I used to doze off occasionally. Note taking often kept me awake, but there were moments when I simply lost control. You know that kind of thing: you’d suddenly realize it and jerkily regain consciousness. On such occasions, I often caught the President glancing at me. But one day, I guess I overdid it. In the middle of a meeting, I must have snored – that kind of snoring that produces noisy decibels and note-changing, level-revising, rhythmic modulations. It was the President’s voice that shook me out of the slumber.
“Abati, what is that?”
I opened my eyes.
“Next time you are feeling sleepy, just go out, walk around for a few minutes and come back. But don’t snore when we are having a meeting.”
In North Korea, that would have earned me an appearance not before an anti-aircraft gun, may be an armoured tank! Kim Jong-un is crazy. The problem is not form; it is the psychology of power. The civilized world must stand up for the right of every human being to be human and not have to die because of a leader’s ego. There is a nightmare going on in North Korea and that is probably better explained by the number of North Koreans who are fleeing to the neighbouring countries of Japan, China and South Korea.
North Korea - the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK!) - is a hermit state where even the right to information or free speech is impossible. People are not allowed to communicate with the outside world, there are restrictions on movement and rights of association, there are no labour rights, the state is so repressive, there is even a strict national policy on men’s haircut: not more than 2cm hair growth is allowed. Why? You can’t grow your hair higher than that of the self-styled “great person born of heaven!” What exists in that country is not leadership, but a cult of personality, and the only personality is the leader whose legitimation derives not from the people but dynastic inheritance. North Korea is a living demonstration of the dangers of power acquired not on the grounds of intellectual brilliance or competence or the people’s choice, but heredity.
Regime-change is a popular phrase in closed-door international circles, what is needed in North Korea is not just regime change, but a people’s revolution that takes power away from class dynasty and hands it over to the people. The world has enough dangerous men already, tolerating a schizophrenic in the Korean Peninsula who has access to nuclear power makes the world a bit more dangerous than it is already.