Tuesday, February 22, 2011

To C or Not to C, That Is the Question

Today I was browsing the latest photos to be uploaded onto Kernbeisser's Flickr photo stream, and came across this image, which I found interesting because it asks many of the most interesting questions which lie constantly in the backdrop to aid provision to North Korea.

As per the photo caption;
The DPRK authorities insisted the factory should be equipped with a modern control room full of computers and monitors. In fact, all the processes are controlled manually and can be run without any numerical control.
I worked my way through university in a seed-processing unit of this sort, so I know from bitter, bitter experience how true the phrase "all the processes are controlled manually and can be run without any numerical control" really is. It was old, dusty, and run, extremely manually, by students just like me.

Anyway, the difference in this case is that the German NGO "Welthungerhilfe (German Agro Action)" has built a manually controllable processing facility but also provided at least a few thousand dollars-worth of totally superfluous computer controlled x, y and z to go along with it because... well, that is the question. Why?

There are three possible answers.

The first is simple. Pride. North Korean functionaries know their country is behind the times and they are somewhat troubled to be accepting foreign aid, but since they are required to do so, they want the aid to pay for something as modern as possible, something that feels like progress.

The second is that someone made the decision to request something that was needed/wanted elsewhere in order to plunder it later and put it to that other use. This basically means that German Agro Action provided computers whose end use they could not be expected to know (a Party hack's home, perhaps?) simply in order to be allowed to build this seed processing facility (and a very nice kindergarten, as well).

The final reason relates (a bit) to the succession of Kim Jong Eun.

There are a number of ways in which the North Korean propaganda wonks have decided to address the problem of Kim Jong Eun's age (let's just say that he is less than 30, for the sake of brevity). One among them is to leverage the supposed advantages of his youth, a concept that can basically be characterized as "young people are good with technology."

To this end, for example, the concept of CNC (computer-numerical control) has been doing the rounds on billboards and such for a while (see here, for one). I would not be surprised if the people who OK'd the project here had one eye on this propaganda trend.

In any case, regardless of where the truth lies, such deals are not easy to embrace because they are dirty.

On the one hand, North Korea clearly needs good seed stock, and who in their right mind could possibly object to a kindergarten, even if it does have a sign above the door saying "Thank you, revered father Kim Jong Il", a poster inside saying "Our General is the best," and a timetable that reserves the first period on a Monday, Tuesday and Saturday for the study of the unabridged greatness of the Kim family.

But on the other hand, the unecessary and expensive control room is an example of much that is wrong, and it could be argued that the German NGO should have stood its ground and refused to install it.

I don't have an answer to this problem. But, if you want to ponder it longer, I do suggest you take a look at this recent piece by Bradley K. Martin, which analyzes the same issue on a slightly larger scale.

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