The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea

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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 affiliated with 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.”

Pak spends most of his time analyzing American politics and news reports, trying to divine America’s intentions regarding North Korea. Since the election of Donald Trump, he said, the task had become more demanding. “When he speaks, I have to figure out what he means, and what his next move will be,” he said. “This is very difficult.”

That would probably please Trump, who prides himself on being unpredictable. Many commentators have drawn comparisons to Richard Nixon and his “madman theory” of diplomacy, in which Nixon sought to leave his adversaries with the impression that he possessed an unstable, dangerous state of mind.

Later, I asked Pak what he and other North Koreans thought of Trump.

“He might be irrational—or too smart. We don’t know,” he said. They suspected that Trump’s comment about “fire and fury” might be part of a subtle strategy. “Like the Chinese ‘Art of War,’ ” he said. “If he’s not driving toward a point, then what is he doing? That is our big question.”

For Pak and other analysts in North Korea, the more important question about the United States extends beyond Trump. “Is the American public ready for war?” he asked. “Does the Congress want a war? Does the American military want a war? Because, if they want a war, then we must prepare for that.”

Commuters on the Pyongyang Metro. The capital, marooned by politics, presents a panorama from another time.

Photograph by Max Pinckers for The New Yorker

A chair used by Kim Jong Un during his visit to the Pyongyang Orphans’ Secondary School, in a room dedicated to commemorating his visit.

Photograph by Max Pinckers for The New Yorker

We arrived at the Kobangsan Guest House, a small, three-story hotel on the outskirts of Pyongyang, surrounded by corn and rice fields. The place had an air of low-cost opulence—chandeliers, rhinestones, and pleather sofas. We were the only guests. The Foreign Ministry uses the hotel for “Americans and V.I.P.s,” Pak said. (In 2013, Eric Schmidt, the former C.E.O. of Google, was put up there.) In North Korea, no visitor is left unattended, and Pak had a room down the hall from mine. I paid a hundred and forty-one dollars a night—a month’s income for the average citizen. “From time immemorial, there is a tradition of giving foreigners the best service,” Pak explained. “The No. 1 thing is to protect them, unless they are spies or enemies.”

We had dinner that night with Ri Yong Pil, a Foreign Ministry official in his mid-fifties, who is the vice-president of the Institute for American Studies. Gregarious and confident, he served eight years in the Army, learned English, and became a diplomat. He raised a glass of Taedonggang beer and toasted our arrival. We were in a private hotel dining room that felt like a surgical theatre: a silent, scrubbed, white-walled room bathed in bright light. Two waitresses in black uniforms served each course: ginkgo soup, black-skin chicken, kimchi, river fish, and vanilla ice cream, along with glasses of beer, red wine, and soju. (The U.N. says that seventy-two per cent of North Koreans rely on government food rations, and the country is experiencing a historic drought. But in Pyongyang a foreign guest eats embarrassingly well.)

Ri made a series of points, waiting for me to write each one in my notebook:

“The United States is not the only country that can wage a preventive war.”

“Three million people have volunteered to join the war if necessary.”

“Historically, Korean people suffered because of weakness. That bitter lesson is kept in our hearts.”

“Strengthening our defensive military capacity is the only way to keep the peace.”

“We are small in terms of people and area, but in terms of dignity we are the most powerful in the world. We will die in order to protect that dignity and sovereignty.”

After several more toasts, Ri loosened his tie and shed his jacket. He had some questions. “In your system, what is the power of the President to launch a war?” he asked. “Does the Congress have the power to decide?”

A President can do a lot without Congress, I said. Ri asked about the nuclear codes: “I’ve heard the black bag is controlled by McMaster. Is it true?” (He was referring to H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser.)

No, the President can launch nukes largely on his own, I said. “What about in your country?”

His answer was similar. “Our Supreme Leader has absolute power to launch a war,” he said.

I turned in early. My room was furnished in the style of Versailles by way of Atlantic City—champagne-colored leather and gold-painted trim. The room was equipped with a TV, but, instead of North Korean programming, the only options were Asian satellite channels. There was no news to be found. I flipped past a Christian evangelist and a Singaporean cooking show, and drifted off to the sight of sumo wrestlers colliding.