Inside North Korea, and Feeling the Drums of War

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 are 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 any time soon.

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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 American 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 American atrocities in Korea were worse than those of Hitler. “They killed Korean people for their pleasure,” First Lt. Jang Un-hye, 24, our military guide in the museum, told me as she led me by an exhibit devoted to American 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 an American 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 American Navy ship seized by North Korea in 1968 — another victory by the Korean People’s Army over the American imperialists! At the border with South Korea is a museum displaying the ax used to kill two American 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.”

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“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 and an American plane 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 American military estimated back in 1994 that another Korean war would cause one 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 two 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 an American president and a North Korean leader who both seem impetuous, overconfident and temperamentally inclined to escalate any dispute — and the American 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.

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