Pyongyang fantasyland built on missiles, nukes
PYONGYANG, North Korea — To fly into North Korea on an old Russian aircraft is to step into an alternate universe in which “the Supreme Leader” defeats craven U.S. imperialists, triplets are taken from parents to be raised by the state, nuclear war is imminent but survivable, and 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 as a “humanitarian” act. Another senior official, Choe Kang Il, insisted that North Korea had provided excellent care, that Warmbier had not been mistreated and was in fine condition when he was sent 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 antiCommunist hatred within America.”
Officials offered no apology and gave no ground, reflecting a hard line; Choe derided President Donald Trump as “a crazy man,” “a thug” and “a pathetic man with a big mouth.” This 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 State Department gave us an exemption from the travel ban to North Korea.
North Korea is galvanizing its people to expect a nuclear war. High school students march in uniform every day to denounce America. Posters and billboards show missiles destroying the U.S. Capitol and shredding the American flag. Images of missiles are everywhere — in a kindergarten playground, at a dolphin show, on state television. This 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.
Ryang Song Chol, a 41-year-old worker, looked surprised when I asked if his country could survive a war with America. “We would certainly win,” he said.
This is the most tightly controlled country in the world, so such quotes should be seen as reflecting a government script.
On past trips, we journalists stayed at hotels in the capital and were free to walk around, but this time, the Foreign Ministry housed us at its own guarded Kobangsan Guest House. At first I thought this was simply to restrict us, but I saw signs of something more menacing: The Foreign Ministry was also protecting us from hardliners 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, especially after Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea, and we were told that military officers sometimes mock their diplomats for being “American cronies.”
The upshot is that I have felt 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 they detain without consular access.
Hard-liners seem ascendant in both Washington and Pyongyang.
In Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson advocates a diplomatic resolution — but Trump said Tillerson was “wasting his time.” Trump’s policy 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, 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.
The North Koreans insist that the U.S. drop its sanctions and “hostile attitude” — which won’t happen. And the U.S. is unrealistic in insisting that North Korea give up its nuclear program.
I told Choe that my visit gave me a sense of deja 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. 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 warheads.
Still, 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.
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, the students are extraordinarily bright, and they conversed with us in fluent English.
Yet this is still North Korea. I asked these kids if they had ever heard of Beyonce 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.
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. This is the most totalitarian state in the history of the world.
North Korea is also sometimes simply weird. Triplets are 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 are in every home, factory, classroom.
Every year, people die trying to rescue the Kim portraits from house fires, and now this Confucian-style reverence is directed to Kim Jong Un, 33. His name means “just and merciful,” and the state media are worshipful.
For all the official hostility, North Koreans tend to be friendly. I met a 13-year-old boy, Paek Sin Hyok, who daily participates in military parades at his middle school. 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. “Are we wolves? Or lambs?”
He struggled with how to answer that politely. “Half and half,” he said.
I suspect North Korea cares about self-preservation, and I don’t believe that it would fire off a nuclear missile 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 the toll could be far greater: One study suggested that if North Korea detonated nuclear weapons over Tokyo and Seoul, deaths could exceed 2 million.
Both sides are fearful of appearing weak and are trying to intimidate the other, but 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. I’d suggest a secret visit to Pyongyang by a senior administration official and 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. Fifth, increase cyberwarfare, which the U.S. already has used effectively against North Korea. Sixth, let’s enforce tighter sanctions, but only if harnessed to a plausible outcome.
The best hope is a variant of 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. Unfortunately, both sides resist this approach.
Next best is long-term mutual deterrence. But we have a U.S. president and a North Korean leader who seem impetuous, overconfident and temperamentally inclined to escalate.
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.
A propaganda poster Oct. 4 on a main street of the North Korean capital depicts missiles striking the U.S. Capitol and reads, “The response of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”