To fly into North Korea on an old Russian aircraft is to step into an alternate universe, one in which “the Supreme Leader” defeats craven U.S. imperialists, in which triplets are taken from parents to be raised by the state, in which nuclear war is imminent but survivable – and in which there is zero sympathy for U.S. detainees like Otto Warmbier.
Warmbier was the University of Virginia student who was arrested for stealing a poster, then sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and eventually returned to the United States in a vegetative state.
“He broke the law in our country,” said Ri Yong Pil, a senior Foreign Ministry official, adding that Warmbier was returned (a week before his death) as a “humanitarian” act. Another senior ministry official, Choe Kang Il, insisted that North Korea had provided excellent care and spent “all the money for nursing” him.
Something in me snapped. I asked how North Koreans could possibly boast about their spending on a young man when he was in a coma only because of them. Choe replied just as hotly that Warmbier had not been mistreated and was in fine condition when he was sent back home.
“The U.S. administration, or some people with a certain intention, let him die,” Choe said. “This must be intended to foster and spread anti-Communist hatred within America.”
Officials offered no apology and gave no ground, reflecting a hard line toward the United States that I found everywhere on this visit; Choe derided President Donald Trump as “a crazy man,” “a thug” and “a pathetic man with a big mouth.” I’ve been covering North Korea on and off since the 1980s, and this five-day trip has left me more alarmed than ever about the risks of a catastrophic confrontation.
I was given a visa to North Korea, as were three other New York Times journalists. The U.S. State Department promptly gave us an exemption from the travel ban to North Korea and issued special passports good for a single trip here.
Far more than when I previously visited, North Korea is galvanizing its people to expect a nuclear war with the United States. High school students march in the streets in military uniform every day to denounce America. Posters and billboards along the public roads show missiles destroying the U.S. Capitol and shredding the American flag. In fact, images of missiles are everywhere – in a kindergarten playground, at a dolphin show, on state television. This military mobilization is accompanied by the ubiquitous assumption that North Korea could not only survive a nuclear conflict, but also win it.
“If we have to go to war, we won’t hesitate to totally destroy the United States,” explained Mun Hyok Myong, a 38-year-old teacher visiting an amusement park.
Ryang Song Chol, a 41-year-old factory worker, looked surprised when I asked if his country could survive a war with America. “We would certainly win,” he said.
These interviews were conducted in the presence of two Foreign Ministry officials, but even if they weren’t, there is no chance that ordinary people would speak freely to a foreign reporter. This is perhaps the most tightly controlled country in the world, so such quotes should be seen as reflecting a government script – in this case, a disturbingly jingoistic one.
On past trips (my last was in 2005), we journalists stayed at hotels in the capital and were free to walk around on our own, but this time, the Foreign Ministry housed us at its own guarded Kobangsan Guest House east of the capital. At first I thought this was simply to restrict us, but increasingly I saw signs of something more interesting and menacing: The Foreign Ministry was also protecting us from hard-liners in the military or in the security services.
“Someone might hear you are from America,” and there could be trouble, one official explained.
Hard-liners seem to have gained greater power this year, especially after Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea, and we were told that military officers sometimes mock their own country’s diplomats for being wimpish “American cronies.”
Foreign Ministry officials escorted us every time we left the compound, probably both to keep us out of mischief and to protect us from the security agencies.
Yes, all this has been a little discomfiting.
The upshot is that I have felt more constraint than on past visits to North Korea, and considerably more tension. Before, I had been able to see senior generals, but this time, the military flatly refused to consider my interview requests. The security forces also refused my request to meet the three Americans whom they still detain, one for two years now, without consular access.
A basic problem is that hard-liners seem ascendant in both Washington and Pyongyang.
In Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is advocating a diplomatic resolution to conflict with North Korea – but Trump undercut him on Twitter last Sunday and said Tillerson was “wasting his time.” Trump’s policy toward North Korea is founded on false assumptions that the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, will give up his nuclear weapons, that China can save the day and that military options are real.
In Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, which is full of wide streets and monumental buildings, officials also express little interest in the kind of tough compromises that would be necessary to resolve the crisis.
“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is on the eve of the breakout of nuclear war,” Choe, the Foreign Ministry official, told me. “We can survive” such a war, he added, and he and other officials said that it was not the right time for talks with the U.S.
The North Koreans insist that the U.S. make the first move and drop its sanctions and “hostile attitude” – which won’t happen. And the U.S. is equally unrealistic in insisting that North Korea give up its entire nuclear program.
I told Choe that my visit gave me a sense of déjà vu, reminding me of a trip to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the eve of the U.S. invasion. The difference is that a war here would be not just a regional disaster but a nuclear cataclysm.
Choe was unimpressed by my warning. He said that Iraq and Libya had made the mistake of giving up their nuclear programs; in each case, America then ousted the regime. He added that the lesson was obvious, so North Korea will never negotiate away its nuclear warheads.
Still, for all the shadow of possible war, North Korea has had some positive changes. The famine is over (although malnutrition still leaves 1 in 4 children stunted), the economy has developed and government officials are far more open and savvy than those of a generation ago.
Officials used to deny that there was ever any crime in North Korea – but now they freely concede that this country has thieves, that young women sometimes become pregnant before marriage, that inevitably there’s a measure of corruption. (They do deny that North Korea has any gay people.)
North Korea is no longer hermetically sealed, and South Korean pop music and soap operas are smuggled in on flash drives and DVDs from China (watching them is a serious criminal offense). There is also an intranet – a rigidly controlled domestic version of the internet – and students learn English from about the third grade. At the best schools, like Pyongyang No. 1 Secondary School, the students are extraordinarily bright, and they conversed with us in fluent English, with far more sophistication than on my first visit to the same school in 1989.
Yet this is still North Korea. I asked these kids if they had ever heard of Beyoncé or the Beatles; none had. I asked if they had heard of Facebook. One had, because computer software sometimes referred to it, but he didn’t know what it was.
Radios or televisions that might get foreign broadcasts are illegal, and there is no access to the internet except for foreigners and senior officials. When I arrived at the airport, my luggage was closely searched for pernicious publications, and even my phone was examined.
“Who’s this person,” the customs official asked suspiciously when she saw an Asian woman appear frequently in my photos.
“My wife,” I explained.
“Oh,” she said, deflated. “She’s pretty.”
Each home or village has a speaker, a link from Big Brother, that drums in propaganda each morning. Religion and civil society are not allowed. Government controls frayed during the terrible famine of the 1990s, when perhaps 10 percent of the population died, but the controls have returned with the economic recovery. This is the most totalitarian state in the history of the world, because it has computers, closed-circuit cameras, mobile phones and other monitoring technologies that Stalin or Mao could only have dreamed of.
North Korea is also sometimes simply weird. Triplets are taken from their parents and raised by the state because they are considered auspicious. The personality cult is unyielding, with every adult wearing pins of “the Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, or his son, “the Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011, and their portraits in every home, every factory, every classroom.
Every year, people die trying to rescue the Kim portraits from house fires (whether because of genuine loyalty or to win credit with the authorities), and now this Confucian-style reverence is directed to Kim Jong Un, 33, the scion of the dynasty. His name means “just and merciful,” and the state media are worshipful about his “brilliant intelligence, military acumen, matchless courage and outstanding art of command,” as one publication put it.
Do people really believe this stuff?
I’ve interviewed countless defectors over the years, and they say that there’s more disenchantment among the youth and in the China border area, where Koreans realize that their country has been left behind. But the defectors add that many North Koreans, especially older ones and those distant from the China border, genuinely believe in the system and worship the Kim family – because they know nothing else.
“Much of the older generation still remains loyal to the regime,” agreed Jieun Baek, author of a recent book on how information reaches North Koreans. Attitudes are changing among younger people and those involved in the market economy, she said, but she doesn’t foresee a grass-roots uprising anytime soon.
What makes this moment so perilous is that North Koreans are steeped in the idea that they have repeatedly defeated the U.S. – and can do so again. Every single person we spoke to, from officials to students, voiced certainty that if war breaks out, America will end up in ashes and the Kim regime will emerge victorious.
“U.S. pride will be squished,” predicted Jo Yong Myong, a 20-year-old university student, who thinks war is likely. “The big nose of the U.S. will be cut off.”
Maybe Kim himself isn’t so recklessly overconfident. But historically, one risk is that dictators come to believe their own propaganda.
For a glimpse of the state narrative, I visited the huge new museum in Pyongyang that Kim built for the Korean War. It flatly asserts the standard North Korean line that U.S. imperialists started the war in 1950 by invading the North, rather than (as historians say) that the North started it by sending soldiers into South Korea, and it says that U.S. atrocities in Korea were worse than those of Hitler. “They killed Korean people for their pleasure,” 1st Lt. Jang Un Hye, 24, our military guide in the museum, told me as she led me by an exhibit devoted to U.S. use of biological weapons in the war (most historians say this is a fabrication).
One hall in the war museum, called “Defeat of the U.S.,” showed a huge diorama with a U.S. soldier’s corpse being picked at by crows, with the sound of their caws filling the room.
Next to the museum is the Pueblo, the U.S. Navy ship seized by North Korea in 1968 – another victory by the Korean People’s Army over the U.S. imperialists! At the border with South Korea is a museum displaying the ax used to kill two U.S. soldiers there in 1976, also presented as a triumph.
Somehow, for all the official hostility, North Koreans tend to be friendly to individual Americans. At the new science and technology tower in Pyongyang, I met a 13-year-old boy, Paek Sin Hyok, who daily participates in military parades at his middle school to mobilize for war. It was his first time meeting Americans, and he said his heart was thumping. I asked about the common North Korean expression that “just as a wolf cannot become a lamb, so an American imperialist can never change his aggressive nature.”
“What about us?” I asked him. “Are we wolves? Or lambs?”
He struggled with how to answer that politely. “Half and half,” he said.
With this mutual distrust, it’s easy to see how things might go wrong. I suspect North Korea is rational and cares about self-preservation, and I don’t believe that it would fire off a nuclear missile at Guam or Los Angeles just for the thrill. But a dogfight between a North Korean plane and a U.S. jet could cause a crisis that escalates. Or Trump could order an airstrike on a North Korean missile during fueling on the launchpad – and that, every North Korean official said, would lead to war.
Both sides are on a hair trigger. That’s why in war games, conflicts quickly escalate – and why the U.S. military estimated back in 1994 that another Korean war would cause 1 million casualties and $1 trillion in damage. Today, with the possibility of an exchange of nuclear weapons, the toll could be far greater: One recent study suggested that if North Korea detonated nuclear weapons over Tokyo and Seoul, deaths in those two cities alone could exceed 2 million.
My sense is that both sides are fearful of appearing weak and are trying to intimidate the other with military bluster, but that each would prefer a peaceful resolution – yet doesn’t know how to get there politically. So how do we get out of this mess?
First, Trump should stop personalizing and escalating the conflict. Second, we need talks without conditions, if only talks about talks: I’d suggest a secret visit to Pyongyang by a senior administration official, as well as discussions with North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations. Third, human rights have to be part of the agenda, backed by the threat of suspending North Korea’s credentials at the United Nations. Fourth, we should support organizations that smuggle information on USB drives into North Korea; this would be cheap and might contribute to change in the long term. Fifth, increase cyberwarfare, which the U.S. has already used effectively against North Korea. Sixth, let’s enforce tighter sanctions, but only if harnessed to a plausible outcome.
Ultimately, the best hope that is realistic may be a variant of what’s called a “freeze for a freeze,” with North Korea halting its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a reduction in sanctions and in U.S.-South Korean military exercises – as an interim step, preserving the long-term goal of denuclearization. Unfortunately, both sides resist this approach; I was disappointed in the lack of North Korean interest.
So if we can’t work out a freeze for a freeze, realistically the next best option is to settle into long-term mutual deterrence. But that would be risky, not least because we have a U.S. president and a North Korean leader who both seem impetuous, overconfident and temperamentally inclined to escalate any dispute – and the U.S. mainland increasingly will be in the cross hairs of North Korean nuclear warheads.
I leave North Korea with the same sense of foreboding that I felt after leaving Saddam’s Iraq in 2002. War is preventable, but I’m not sure it will be prevented.