Why North Korea is Cooler than France

Michael Totten, Portland-based writer for World Affairs, on war zones, Syria, and how Pyongyang beats Paris

By Nancy Rommelmann April 2, 2014 Published in the April 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

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You made your mark with on-the-ground reporting from the Middle East. What keeps you going back? The Middle East is not a remote abstraction to me. It’s a real place where real human beings live, suffer, and die. Some are the most ruthless SOBs you could imagine—you don’t get 100,000 dead people in Syria in a nation full of pacifists. But others are decent, regular people who have the bad luck of living in a rough place during a brutal time in its history.

What’s your take on Syria? It’s a huge bloody mess, and it’s impossible for anybody to fix it. It will still be a huge bloody mess no matter what Barack Obama decides to do—and that includes the do-nothing option. No matter what he chooses, it will appear in hindsight that he did the wrong thing.

You once described yourself as “a weird combination of liberal, libertarian, and neocon.” What? I try to keep a centrist and moderate tone whenever I report, but it’s impossible to show up in a war zone and not give a damn about what happens.

Why don’t you write for Portland publications?The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal pay a lot more than the Oregonian and Willamette Week, so I have no incentive to publish locally until that changes. This isn’t a hobby. I have a mortgage and bills like everyone else.

You once said you’d rather visit North Korea than Paris. Are you mad? It’s not that I think North Korea is better than Paris! North Korea is one of the worst places in the world; Paris is one of the best. But North Korea is also one of the strangest. I like strange places. They’re more fun to write about and more fun to read about. I need a break from the Middle East. A communist police state seems upbeat and cheery by comparison. I’m working on visiting all the remaining communist countries, starting with Cuba.

After visiting Cuba, you wrote that “the totalitarian state does weigh heavier than expected.” What did you mean? Havana, outside the tourist bubble, looks like it was hit by Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian tsunami. The Cubans themselves are among the most delightful people I’ve met anywhere. They put up with extraordinary abuse and still manage to smile. My next trip will be to Vietnam—much more relaxed than Cuba. As they say, the US lost the war but won the argument. 

You’ve published four books in the past three years. What’s the latest? Resurrection: A Zombie Novel just came out. I’ve always wanted to write about the end of the world, and now I have.         

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