Py­ongyang fan­ta­sy­land built on mis­siles, nukes

The Times-Tribune - - Op-ed - NI­CHOLAS D. KRISTOF NI­CHOLAS D. KRISTOF writes for The New York Times.

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.

JONAH M. KES­SEL / THE NEW YORK TIMES

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.”

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