CRF Blog

The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea

by Bill Hayes

Writing in the New Yorker, Evan Osnos discusses his recent trip to North Korea and looks at The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, so there is no embassy in Washington, but for years the two countries have relied on the “New York channel,” an office inside North Korea’s mission to the United Nations, to handle the unavoidable parts of our nonexistent relationship. The office has, among other things, negotiated the release of prisoners and held informal talks about nuclear tensions. In April, I contacted the New York channel and requested permission to visit Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The New York channel consists mostly of two genial middle-aged men: Pak Song Il, a husky diplomat with a gray brush cut; and his aide-de-camp, Kwon Jong Gun, who is younger and thinner. They go everywhere together. (The North Korean government has diplomats work in pairs, to prevent them from defecting, or being recruited as spies.) Under U.S. law, they can travel only twenty-five miles from Columbus Circle. Pak and Kwon met me near their office, for lunch at the Palm Too. They cautioned me that it might take several months to arrange a trip. North Korea periodically admits large groups of American journalists, to witness parades and special occasions, but it is more hesitant when it comes to individual reporters, who require close monitoring and want to talk about the nuclear program.

Americans are accustomed to eruptions of hostility with North Korea, but in the past six months the enmity has reached a level rarely seen since the end of the Korean War, in 1953. The crisis has been hastened by fundamental changes in the leadership on both sides. In the six years since Kim Jong Un assumed power, at the age of twenty-seven, he has tested eighty-four missiles — more than double the number that his father and grandfather tested. Just before Donald Trump took office, in January, he expressed a willingness to wage a “preventive” war in North Korea, a prospect that previous Presidents dismissed because it would risk an enormous loss of life. Trump has said that in his one meeting with Barack Obama, during the transition, Obama predicted that North Korea, more than any other foreign-policy challenge, would test Trump. In private, Trump has told aides, “I will be judged by how I handle this.”

On the Fourth of July, North Korea passed a major threshold: it launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile powerful enough to reach the mainland United States. In response, on July 21st, authorities in Hawaii announced that they would revive a network of Cold War-era sirens, to alert the public in the event of a nuclear strike. Trump said that he hopes to boost spending on missile defense by “many billions of dollars.” On September 3rd, after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon far larger than any it had revealed before — seven times the size of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, warned that a threat to America or its allies would trigger a “massive military response.”

A few days after the July 4th missile test, Pak told me that I could book a flight to Pyongyang. I submitted a list of people I wanted to interview, including diplomats and Kim Jong Un himself. About the latter, Pak only laughed. (Kim has never given an interview.) After Pak stopped laughing, he said I could talk to other officials. I wanted to understand how North Koreans think about the kind of violence that their country so often threatens. Were the threats serious, or mere posturing? How did they imagine that a war would unfold? Before my arrival in North Korea, I spent time in Washington, Seoul, and Beijing; many people in those places, it turned out, are asking the same things about the United States.

About a week before my flight to Pyongyang, America’s dealings with North Korea deteriorated further. On August 5th, as punishment for the missile test, the U.N. Security Council adopted some of the strongest sanctions against any country in decades, blocking the sale of coal, iron, and other commodities, which represent a third of North Korea’s exports. President Trump, in impromptu remarks at his golf club in New Jersey, said that “any more threats to the United States” will be met “with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” A few hours later, North Korea threatened to fire four missiles into the Pacific Ocean near the American territory of Guam, from which warplanes depart for flights over the Korean Peninsula. Trump replied, in a tweet, that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.”

Suddenly, the prospect of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the most hermetic power on the globe had entered a realm of psychological calculation reminiscent of the Cold War, and the two men making the existential strategic decisions were not John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev but a senescent real-estate mogul and reality-television star and a young third-generation dictator who has never met another head of state. Between them, they had less than seven years of experience in political leadership.

Brinkmanship, according to Thomas Schelling, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who pioneered the theory of nuclear deterrence, is the art of “manipulating the shared risk of war.” In 1966, he envisaged a nuclear standoff as a pair of mountain climbers, tied together, fighting at the edge of a cliff. Each will move ever closer to the edge, so that the other begins to fear that he might slip and take both of them down. It is a matter of creating the right amount of fear without losing control. Schelling wrote, “However rational the adversaries, they may compete to appear the more irrational, impetuous, and stubborn.” But what if the adversaries are irrational, impetuous, and stubborn?

Three days after Trump’s “locked and loaded” tweet, I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang. The flight was mostly empty, except for some Chinese businessmen and Iranian diplomats. I was accompanied by the photographer Max Pinckers and his assistant, Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras. In the air, I deleted from my laptop some books about North Korea; the government is especially sensitive about portrayals of the Kim family. (When you buy a North Korean newspaper with an image of Kim Jong Un on the front page, the clerk folds it carefully, to avoid creasing his face.) The airport was quiet and immaculate. At customs, when I opened my suitcase, I saw that I had forgotten to discard two books: “The Great Successor,” an account of Kim’s ascent, and “The Impossible State.” The customs officer called over a colleague, who flipped through the pages and alerted his superiors. I was led to a room, where an officer told me that the books are “very disparaging about the D.P.R.K.” He wanted to know where and when I had bought them, and whether I had read them. After some discussion, I was told to write a statement promising “never to bring them to the D.P.R.K. again.” I signed it, the books were confiscated, and I hustled on.

I was approached by a smiling man in a crisp white short-sleeved button-down shirt with a small red pin on his left breast, bearing a likeness of Kim Il Sung — Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, and the first leader of North Korea. (Citizens over the age of sixteen are expected to wear a badge celebrating at least one of the Kims.) He introduced himself, in English, as Mr. Pak, of the Foreign Ministry’s Institute for American Studies, and said that he would be my guide. I followed him outside, where the air was clear and still. Pak presented the others who would be accompanying us: two drivers and a slim young man with a military bearing named Mr. Kim, who provided only one-word answers to my occasional queries. Pak and I climbed into a Toyota S.U.V.

Pak — by coincidence, he has the same full name, Pak Song Il, as the senior member of the New York channel — is thirty-five years old, with short bushy hair and a placid demeanor. Most of North Korea’s twenty-five million people are not permitted to travel abroad, but Pak’s job has allowed him to visit several countries, which he described in terms of their cleanliness: Switzerland (very clean); Belgium (not so clean); Bangladesh (not clean at all). In 2015, he went to Utah (clean) for a nongovernmental exchange attended by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The experience convinced him that Mormons have a lot in common with North Koreans. “When the L.D.S. started, they were hated,” he told me. “They were sent to the desert. But they made it thrive. They are organized like a bee colony, where everyone works for one purpose and they would die for it. And they make huge output, as a result. We understand each other very well.” [more]