Project Abacus

Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is visiting Russia, partly because he loves ballet and borscht. He is also a big fan of Boris Spassky, and uses what he has learned about chess to manipulate relations with China and South Korea, as well as the United States and other major and minor world players. He also is known to have a deep appreciation for Russian culture.

Why is he in Russia? Why doesn’t he stay in his perfect, fertile, abundant-with-everything, wonderful country? (Ha ha!) North Korea analysts believe he is there to negotiate a deal to bring back 50,000 cases of Weetabix, to feed to his happy but starving citizens, and to do some wheeling and dealing. Another deal on the table is to make arrangements to transport natural gas and oil from Russia through North Korea to South Korea. One source suggests that a giant pipeline will be constructed through some 500 miles of North Korean territory. This could provide North Korea not only with income while the pipeline is being built, but also with ready supplies of energy it could tap into. In addition, it seems feasible to extract fees for allowing the oil and gas to cross North Korean soil, whether on some time or percentage basis.

If viewed from the perspective of a chess board, one South Korean editor looks at this as Kim’s latest maneuver to “…add to its increasing portfolio of potential hostage issues for times when inter-Korean relations chill.” Clever. And speaking of hostages, North Korea has been kidnapping South Koreans since the 1950’s, and prefers to return them, after hefty ransoms have been collected, by shooting them from huge cannons across the Korean Demilitarized Zone. (In North Korea this method of transporting people across the border is called the ‘Glorious Rainbow of Dear Leader’s Benevolence’.) Since North Korean military personnel are entertained by this, Kim feels that he doesn’t need to feed or pay them. Another South Korean newspaper speculates that the pipeline could be used to supply the Pyongyang palace with the vast quantities of hair spray and styling gel required to keep Kim’s coif in place.

During Operation Kim-Chi, when I went deep underground to sniff out what was really fermenting, I heard rumors of communications between Pyongyang and Beijing regarding trains. Since the recent high-speed train crash in China, the government railways ministry has ordered a recall of train cars, and the company that manufactured them, North Locomotive and Rolling Stock Ltd, a state-owned company, doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. A shrewd shopper, Kim wants them at a big discount (a “fire sale”?), as part of a novel method to transport oil and gas through poverty stricken North Korea.

According to Kim Jong Il’s favorite masseuse, who goes by the stage name of Yum Yum Hands, Kim wants to construct a grid system that looks like an abacus with ten parallel tracks fanning out from close to the Russian border town of Khasan, at North Korea’s northeastern-most tip, through North Korea, down to South Korea, coming to an intersection like the ropes on a hammock. Rather than install one big pipeline with valves and electronic controls, which would be the cheap and smart way to do it, Kim Jong Il wants to put hundreds of railway cars to use, going back and forth. Each car will be converted into a tank car, capable of carrying a large quantity of natural gas or oil. This will allow North Korea to keep more of the liquid energy inside North Korea for longer periods of time, and will allow it to play a sort of shell game, so that it might spirit away cars full of gas or oil for its own use, or to sell for cash. This is ironic, because the Shell Oil Co (along with Russia’s Gazprom) is involved in the project.

One last theory for Kim’s visit and his abacus train project comes from my contacts in Switzerland, who yodel oodles of intell to me. Kim Jong Un, one of Kim Jong Il’s sons and the heir-apparent to take over the North Korean regime, was largely raised and schooled in Switzerland. By all accounts, he is an immature, spoiled brat, which doesn’t surprise me. One Swiss miss in particular told me that as a child, he liked playing with his toy trains. As he got older, his train sets got bigger and bigger. Last month he threw a violent temper tantrum when his father refused to build him a grand-scale, nation-wide train system he could play with, and in his anger he shot and killed several members of his palace staff.

According to my contact, the Pyongjang palace chef that night served “borscht” as a shift meal for palace employees. Evidently it left a bad taste in their mouths.

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