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Story Publication logo September 18, 2017

Your Questions About “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea,” Answered


Lieutenant Colonel Pang Myong Jin, of the Korean People's Army, inside the Demilitarized Zone in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Image by Evan Osnos. North Korea, 2017.

Three days after Donald Trump tweeted that the U.S. is "locked and loaded" in its nuclear standoff...

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Image from The New Yorker's video with Evan Osnos, "The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea." United States, 2017.
Image from The New Yorker's video with Evan Osnos, 'The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea.' United States, 2017.

Last week, The New Yorker published "The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea," an examination of tensions between the United States and the most hermetic power on the globe. The article drew upon a reporting trip I made last month to Pyongyang. On Facebook and Twitter, we asked readers to submit questions they had after reading the article. (Questions have been edited for clarity.)

I heard that some consumer goods, like cell phones and DVD players, are smuggled in to North Korea from China. Do any North Koreans know how the world views their country? —Dave McKenney

That's a very interesting question because it gets to the issue of information, which is one of the most powerful, and uncertain, ingredients in the political chemistry. First of all, there is a lot of foreign programming getting under the table, and being watched in private. Soap operas from South Korea are so widely admired that some élite women in Pyongyang have adopted the accents of upper-class Seoul. As for whether North Koreans understand how they are perceived outside, that is harder to say. In short, yes, to some degree, they know they are a place unto itself. But do ordinary people know how much of a pariah their country is? I don't know. But some government officials know. One official whom I mention in the story, Pak Song Il, told me that, after visiting Utah, he decided that North Koreans have a lot in common with Mormons. "When the L.D.S. started, they were hated," he told me. "They were sent to the desert. But they made it thrive."

It seems like diplomacy is critical to bridging the gap in understanding between the two countries. Has there been any movement recently at the State Department to talk with the New York channel or establish a physical presence in North Korea? —Peter Flanigan

Yes, there has been some limited contact. I'm aware that Joseph Yun, the special representative for North Korea policy at the State Department, is in frequent but low-stakes contact with diplomats in the "New York channel." It's a useful avenue to keep "warm," as a U.S. official put it to me, but they do not expect it to be the prelude to high-level summitry. It's not at the level, for instance, that the diplomat Bill Burns had with Iran during the early stages of negotiations under the Obama Administration. At this point, neither the Trump Administration nor the North Koreans are prepared to sit down at the table, because the environment is too hostile. They need a break in the action to cool off, before they can begin to negotiate with any hope of success.

Did you get a sense of how much leverage China really has over D.P.R.K.? —@kristiaanhk

I'll probably be writing more about this at greater length. I spent several days in Beijing before my visit to Pyongyang. To have real leverage, you have to be willing to use it, and, in that sense, China does not have the kind of simple leverage that American officials sometimes imagine. (It's not as if China can turn a knob, cut off trade, and North Korea will comply.) China's trade with North Korea is multi-layered, partly illicit, and partly essential for survival (e.g., oil in winter). So China is not going to let it disappear overnight, even if China is exasperated with North Korea, which it is. In my meetings, I got the clear sense that Chinese officials and strategists are slowly coming to the view that their wait-and-see approach to the North Korea problem is no longer workable. They are approaching a more active involvement, but the contours of that are still in play. Check back with The New Yorker for more on that in the weeks ahead.

How did you reconcile your role as an "ambassador" vs. reporter? It's clear you were seen partly as the former. —@suryasays

It was a surprising element of the trip that I did not expect. The North Koreans had questions for me that I had to answer—about U.S. politics and the workings of the media and the mood of the public. They were a revealing window into the points of confusion or uncertainty in North Korean élite circles. Even some of the most informed members of the government are unsure what to trust and believe. As a visitor, I tried to give them honest, clear answers to their questions about American life—just as I would in any country. I felt that the stakes were a little higher in terms of helping to close some of the gaps in in their understanding.

It would be great to hear you relate your D.P.R.K. trip to your intimate knowledge of Beijing's politics: How do you see China's role in this? —@TimSteinecke

As you'll see in my answer to a question above, I may be writing more on that. But it's safe to say that the role of China in this equation is important—even if it's not at all the panacea that President Trump might have suggested in some of his tweets. China does not have the total control to turn this crisis around. Just as a practical illustration: to our knowledge, Xi Jinping has never met Kim Jong Un, and even the Chinese Ambassador to North Korea has yet to present his credentials to the leader. There is a sustained chill between the two leaderships.

How much do you think role of U.S.A. and NATO in Libyan crisis influences #NorthKorea's decision to continue nuclear and missile program? —@yesir786

North Korean officials often say that the Libya crisis and the fate of Qaddafi have shaped their decision not to give up their weapons. As I describe in the piece, they are explicit about this, and they repeated it to me, as they have in back-channel contact with the United States. But I would also say that we can't take this entirely at face value. They know that "self-defense" is a more credible argument in the West than, say, a desire to reunify the Peninsula by coercion, so they emphasize the role of the Libyan analogy.

Terrific work. Thank you. Question: How likely is the establishment of an interest section in Pyongyang? Why has it not been tried in the past? —@Red_Twizzlers

At this stage, it's unlikely. James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence, is a respected national-security professional, so, when he suggested it, the idea had to be taken seriously. But it's way outside the consensus at the moment, simply because it would bespeak a level of diplomatic contact that remains, to this point, far away. But this is not Clapper's first rodeo; he is not making a fanciful suggestion. He knows the stakes, the risks, and the benefits. I would not be surprised to see an interest section in a basket of future options.

You write that Iranian diplomats were on the flight to Pyongyang. Any connection to the nuclear program you think? —@vickpatel

Not as far as I know. It was notable because North Korea and Iran had been exchanging some high-profile diplomatic contacts recently. A senior North Korean official was in Tehran just a couple of weeks earlier, so I perked up when I saw the Iranians coming through.

Kim Jong Un seems to have more experience in international relations than Trump. Do you think Trump's narcissism and idiocy will appease North Korea? —@realTamworth

Though Kim has, indeed, been in office for six years, neither he nor Trump has much experience in international relations. This is new territory, and one of the elements we have to keep in mind is the role that style and rhetoric can play in diplomacy. Trump takes pride in his bluster and pyrotechnics, and, on some level, it has shaken the North Koreans. They aren't used to it from American Presidents, and they don't have a playbook with which to respond very easily. But, curiously, it's also possible that Trump's approach is so outside the norm that he could alter the dynamic in ways we don't expect—not all of them bad. This is in the realm of speculation, but North Korean officials said to me that they are unsure what to make of Trump, though they haven't written off the idea that he could be open to a deal. They listen to him when he talks about deal-making, and maybe—just maybe—that could shake up an otherwise frozen conflict. I'm not ready to be optimistic, but I'm also not foreclosing the possibility of unexpected results.


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Nuclear Threats

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