A scene in the second season of HBO's wildly popular "Game of Thrones" illustrates how easy it is for those in power to minimize the abstract suffering of the masses.
In the show's world, where summers and winters can last years, the king's royal council discusses food stores as winter approaches and war rages.
"We have enough wheat for a five-year winter," says Lord Petyr Baelish, the scheming finance minister played by Aiden Gillen. "If it lasts any longer ... we'll have fewer peasants."
Although it's impossible to get anything of substance from the famously reclusive North Korea, it's easy to imagine that any discussion about the welfare of the people among Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and his elites would go the same way. That is, if they discuss the welfare of their own people at all.
On July 6, President Barack Obama announced a new round of sanctions aimed at punishing North Korea's communist regime for human rights abuses and an aggressive military policy.
The latter mostly involves testing inept missile systems and making outlandish threats against the U.S. The former is practically the stuff of legend, with hundreds of thousands of estimated political prisoners toiling in North Korean labor camps, and millions forced to eat grass and tree bark to stave off starvation, according to Amnesty International.
What makes the new sanctions different is that the Department of State took the unusual step of identifying and singling out 14 top North Korean officials in addition to Kim. American officials say they're putting Kim's top lieutenants on notice, The New York Times reported, making it clear that their names and alleged atrocities are a matter of record, should the regime collapse.
Along with a U.N. Security Council ban on importing luxury goods to the closed-off country, the new U.S. sanctions have frozen North Korean assets in the U.S. and prompted China to conduct more thorough inspections of cargo flowing into and out of North Korea, The New York Times reported.
“They basically made a decision that their best chance at ever getting a negotiation going with North Korea would be to basically follow the Iran template, which was to put as much pressure as they could on the regime with the hope that they would ultimately have to go back to the talks,” Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The New York Times.
At the same time, experts say China probably won't be inspired to regulate North Korean cargo shipments with renewed zeal.
While North Korea's citizens starve, Kim Jong Un reportedly imports an estimated $30 million worth of his favorite drink, cognac, each year. Kim's former sushi chef, now a defector, told Time magazine that the dictator has a taste for Uzbek caviar, Danish pork and Chinese melon.
In addition to the palaces and secluded retreats built by his father and grandfather, Kim has had 14 new luxury villas built, according to a report by UPI. The Marshal, as he's sometimes called by North Korea's official press agency, vacations at those villas when he fancies a hunting trip or wants to go swimming in summer.
While his country's people cower in fear and the streets of North Korea's cities remain empty, Kim enjoys rounds at an array of private golf courses for his exclusive use. While each generation of North Korean children grow shorter than the last because of malnutrition, Kim pals around with former NBA star Dennis Rodman, and employs animation studios to produce cartoons in which he's the hero, according to Vice.
He's got a taste for luxury yachts, antique pianos and exotic cars, with his personal fleet said to exceed 1,000 vehicles. He also enjoys the rides at his own personal theme parks, and likes to stage massive sports events to amuse himself.
In those ways, Kim is a lot like his father, Kim Jong Il, who famously kidnapped his favorite South Korean actress and director, keeping them in captivity so they could make movies for him. The elder Kim was known for outlandish claims -- according to official state media, Kim Jong Il wrote hundreds of books and sank 11 holes-in-one during his first-ever round of golf.
He also brought in Italian pizzaiolo Ermanno Furlanis to supervise the construction of stone-fire pizza ovens and teach North Korean chefs how to make proper pizzas -- Furlanis told The Guardian that at one point, the terrified chefs were carefully measuring the distance between olives on the pizzas so as not to disappoint Dear Leader.
The point is, Kim the younger isn't going to suffer from sanctions. North Korean experts have said as much, in The New York Times and elsewhere. The dictator keeps a running "parallel fund," according to Time, which he uses to fund his luxurious lifestyle. That fund is essentially the equivalent of taking food out of the mouths of starving North Koreans.
So the question is, what exactly will sanctions accomplish if they're not going to make a dent in Kim's life of excess? In the words of Baelish, North Korea will simply have fewer peasants. Sanctions might make some people feel good, and they might make it look like Obama's accomplishing something, but at the end of the day they're just doing more harm than good.