Journalist Says: In North Korea, Talk Of War And Nuclear Weapons Is 'Everywhere'

Sep 13, 2017
Originally published on September 14, 2017 12:21 pm
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, went on a reporting trip to North Korea at a dangerous time. It was last month, three days after President Trump tweeted that military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded should North Korea act unwisely. Osnos went to North Korea to see what he could learn about the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, and his nuclear strategy.

In July, North Korea launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially reach the mainland of the U.S. This month, it detonated a nuclear weapon several times more powerful than the atom bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. President Trump has threatened to unleash fire and fury like the world has never seen if North Korea makes any more threats against the U.S. And yesterday, in response to the new, stricter sanctions passed by the U.N. Security Council, the North Korean ambassador said North Korea is ready to use a form of ultimate means.

We're going to talk about what Evan Osnos saw and learned during his four days in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Osnos covers politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. He covered China for eight years.

Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about your trip, how worried are you about a possible nuclear war, that either North Korea or the U.S. will use a nuclear weapon?

EVAN OSNOS: I think we have to take extremely seriously the moment that we're in because this really is an unusual moment. You know, to be blunt about it, we're dealing with two political leaders who have between them a combined seven years of experience in public office, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Each of them prides themselves on being unpredictable, on being confrontational when necessary, and that introduces two chemical ingredients into this U.S.-North Korea relationship that is very different than what came before. So I'll tell you honestly. I don't sit up at night worrying about nuclear war, but I have a very clear sense now that we're facing extremely risky territory.

GROSS: We've always relied on deterrence. And you've spoken to deterrence experts, and some of them feel like the equation for deterrence has changed now that we're talking about Kim Jong Un and President Trump.

OSNOS: Yeah. This is the key fact about the moment that we're in right now. What's changed is that we're now into an era in which neither side truly understands who is sitting on the opposite side of the Pacific. They don't really know in Pyongyang whether Donald Trump means it when he says that, quote, "fire and fury" would be raining down on Pyongyang if they threaten the United States. They don't quite know what he means when he says that the U.S. is locked and loaded as he did in a tweet in August. And on the U.S. side, of course it's very hard to know what to make of these statements that North Korea makes, these incredibly hyperbolic declarations about breaking the windpipes of the Yankees and drowning them in a sea of blood.

And as a result, in many ways, you find two countries staring at each other through very foggy glass. And that's partly by design. But the result is that today, instead of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which had a fairly clear sense of each other by the end of the Cold War, we're dealing with two countries that are in many ways deeply unaware of how the other one thinks.

GROSS: Well, you went to North Korea after some frightening exchanges. This was just three days after President Trump tweeted that military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded. Was that a particularly frightening time to go to North Korea?

OSNOS: I mean I'll be honest. Yeah, I had some hesitation about whether this was a mistake. I'd spent several months putting together this trip, dealing with the North Korean government, trying to get them to approve the idea. And then it just happened that in August when the trip was ready to go, that the relationship deteriorated quite rapidly. And you had both sides threatening violence against the other.

And so for a few days, my editors and I were talking about whether this was still a valid idea and whether it can be done safely. And what we concluded in the end was that the risks were manageable. I was there, invited by the government. They knew who I was. They knew I was a journalist. And it seemed like the wise choice to go.

GROSS: So why did you want to go? What did you hope to learn?

OSNOS: I was desperate to try to understand what they actually mean when they say these things. I wanted to understand what North Korea intends when they talk about nuclear weapons. How do they actually imagine a war would unfold? How do they think about things like the theory of deterrence, the idea of mutually assured destruction? Do they imagine that a war with the United States would be the end of them? Or do they have some other conception? And frankly I also wanted to understand what it felt like on the ground. I mean was it a place that looked more belligerent than aggressive from far away as - than it would be up close?

GROSS: So do you now feel like you have a better understanding of what North Korea's concept of nuclear war is, what its leaders' concept is about what nuclear war would actually mean for them and for their people?

OSNOS: I did learn a few things that I think are important for us to keep in mind. One of the things that's quite striking when you get to Pyongyang is that talk of war and nuclear weapons and missiles is everywhere. It's on billboards beside the street. I drove by a billboard that showed a picture of the U.S. Capitol that's been reduced to rubble, and North Korean missiles are going into it. And it says - in Korean script across the top, it says, preventive war and military options. And then you hear about...

GROSS: Can we just stop right there and talk about what a frightening image that must've been to drive, passing the Capitol of your country...

OSNOS: (Laugher) Right.

GROSS: ...Ruined by a North Korean nuclear weapon...

OSNOS: Right.

GROSS: ...On a billboard.

OSNOS: Yeah. I mean, Terry, this is - gets to the heart of the strangeness of the experience. Let's be honest. This is not the kind of billboard that you see in the United States. And that's - you know, that's - we've had a nuclear arsenal since World War II, and it exists sort of in the background of our consciousness. We know we have these weapons. We know there's this risk always of nuclear conflict of some kind. But it's not the kind of thing that ever comes up in daily conversation perhaps until recently. But in North Korea, it comes up a fair amount.

I mean we're sitting at lunch, and on television there is pictures of artillery and missiles. And it's a kind of propaganda film that's running on the screen over our heads. And if you talk to government officials, they say that they are thinking about it constantly. And some of that is very, very much for public consumption. It's intended for me, the American journalist, to bring that message home.

But it's also important for us to recognize that we don't think about war quite the same way that North Korea thinks about war because after all, you know, the Korean War, which took place between 1950 and 1953, is a distant part of our collective memory in the United States. It's overshadowed, really, by other wars in the 20th century. But for North Korea, it was practically last week. That's how they talk about it. It's very much still a live, active issue. And they think about the threat and the prospect of American hostility and invasion. For them, that is a very real thing. It's not abstract.

GROSS: You know, in talking about the propaganda and the emphasis on, like, weaponry, you know, dolphins in the U.S. are considered these beautiful, peaceful animals, very new-agey (ph), spiritual. People swim with the dolphins. Talk about the missiles and the dolphins in North Korea.

OSNOS: (Laughter) Yeah. This was a really, in its own way, revealing little moment. They took me to a number of places in the capital that were intended to show me that the life in Pyongyang is getting better and better. That's what they wanted to project. And it's worth pointing out here, you know, North Korea has a per capita income that's roughly comparable to Haiti. It's a little bit behind Yemen. So it is a poor country by any measure. But in the city itself, in Pyongyang, there are these very clear signs of development and growth.

So one of the places they took me was what's known as the dolphinarium. It's an aquarium where dolphins will flip around and jump in the air and, you know, jump through rings. And at the end of the show, there's a video montage. And in the video montage, there are missiles streaking across the sky. And I asked my minder from the foreign ministry; I said, what's the connection there between dolphins and missiles? And he said the connection is that we will have everything we want - a dolphinarium, missiles. One by one, we will achieve it.

And in that, that's a really important point because what's happened is that the missile and the nuclear program have been braided into the North Korean sense of pride and self-respect and joy and so that everybody is reminded every day that these programs, these weapons are essential elements of your own sense of personal and family satisfaction. And that's one of the reasons why I think it's going to be harder for the United States to persuade North Korea to give them up than we might naturally assume.

GROSS: I know you didn't get a chance to speak with a lot of North Korean people, and the people in Pyongyang are kind of chosen to live there because they're younger, they're healthier, they're - they're - it's a very cleansed image of what North Korea is like. But from the little you were able to get, do you think that people in North Korea are afraid of the consequences of nuclear war? Do they understand what a nuclear weapon really does, that if there was a nuclear war and North Korea was attacked in exchange for their weapon, you know, if there was a counter nuclear attack on North Korea, that it would be devastating, that they would - you know, millions would die horrible deaths? It's, like, way beyond a sense of pride. It's, like, a terrible, terrible death.

OSNOS: Yeah, and I'm going to - I'll answer that in two ways. One is what I was told, and the second is what I came to believe. The first thing is that people go out of their way to tell you how comfortable they are with the idea of a nuclear exchange. I mean, I had a conversation with a very smart and very alert, knowledgeable America analyst at the Foreign Ministry, a guy named Pak Song Il, whose job it is to analyze the United States, speaks extremely good English. And he said, look; we understand that a war would be devastating, but we've survived devastation twice in our recent history - the Korean War and then the famine of the mid-'90s which killed up to three million people.

And he said, we would - we would survive again. And he took me down into the subway which is built a hundred meters underground, twice the depth of the New York subway system, and he said, this is where we would go in the event of a nuclear strike. He showed me the blast doors.

And when you walk down the street, you hear loudspeakers that are talking about the threat of American attack and the need to be alert to spies and to enemies. And yet I have to admit, after - after hearing this day, after day, after - they were telling me over and over again - and I would stop people on the street and I would ask them to talk about the hostility and the crisis of the moment, and they would give very similar answers. In fact, you know, I didn't bother putting many of them into the story because it was just so repetitive.

But - but what was - what I concluded was that this is a form of national theater. In a sense, North Korea's self-image today is rooted in the idea that it - it survived the Korean War. In their own telling, they beat the Americans. Historians disagree with that. They say that what it - it was in fact a stalemate. But in the Korean self-image, they are capable of survival. They see themselves as gritty, and I came away with the very distinct impression that when they talk about nuclear war, you know, to borrow a phrase, what they're really talking about is their sense of - of will and determination to be a country that can stand up to this immense level of isolation and sanctions and hostility in the world. But the idea that they would actually push this to the point of a nuclear exchange is - is not as - is not as sincere as the propaganda and the theatrics would suggest. I think that's really important to point out.

GROSS: What - what? What evidence do you have of that?

OSNOS: You know, this is a little bit like deterrence in the sense that it goes partly on the basis of instinct and feel. And I had these conversations with North Korean government officials in which they are living their lives. You know, they are - Pak Song Il, who I spent a lot of time with, has a 5-year-old son. He is frustrated by the fact that sanctions have stopped the import of Lego bricks because they're qualified as a luxury good under international standards. That's what frustrates him. He's a guy who gets up in the morning and tries to understand Donald Trump's Twitter feed. You know, he lives a life. He is not a jihadist who is thinking about self-sacrifice and about some holy martyrdom.

And I think that's really important to distinguish because we've become so inured over the course of the last 15 years to the idea that there are people who imagine glory in suicide that we sometimes imagine that North Korea is the same way. And it's not the same way. We have to be deadly serious about what their government has the capability to do and what they intend to do. But let's not go too far and assume that that means that it's a suicidal regime because that's a very different thing.

GROSS: Well, the person who you just described, Mr. Pak, was your minder during a good deal of the trip. And he's from North Korea's Foreign Ministry's Institute for American Studies. That's not American studies like your average American studies department at an American university. What does American studies mean in that context?

OSNOS: They're in charge of assessing everything they can about the U.S. So they read every story that comes out in the American press about North Korea. They have the difficult task of reading Donald Trump's comments, following his Twitter feed, trying to understand what he means. And, you know, for - they had a lot of questions for me, yeah, which was kind of a surprise. I didn't really expect that, but a senior official in the Institute for American Studies late in the evening one night after we'd had a long dinner said to me, is it true that H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, has control over the black bag, by which he meant the nuclear codes. And I said, no, that's not true. The president has control over the nuclear codes. You need to be clear on that. But I was quite struck. This is one of the most senior diplomats in the North Korean Foreign Ministry in charge of the American account, and he's still very much trying to gather information about the nature of our nuclear decision-making.

I think what they were trying to do was - and we do this too as Americans, and American journalists and intelligence analysts do the same thing, which is, sure, that's very much the public information. We know it's true that the...

GROSS: Oh, I see, yeah.

OSNOS: ...President - but he was trying to say, look, you live in Washington. You cover politics. You know some of these people. What's really going on? And that's - you know, that was very much the tone of a lot of their questions was what's really going on. Why is it, they said, that the president will use this in - this very confrontational language on Twitter but then his own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, will come out and say we seek no regime change, we want some sort of diplomatic negotiations? So they're trying to figure out what's going on there because it doesn't seem to be the simple matter that the president is speaking with one voice.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer who covers politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker, and his new article is called "The Risk Of Nuclear War With North Korea." He traveled there recently. We'll talk more about the trip after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, covering politics and foreign affairs. His new article is called "The Risk Of Nuclear War With North Korea," and it's based in part on four days he spent in North Korea in August. It's also based on a lot of interviews he's done here and in Seoul.

What were some of the questions you asked your minders about Kim Jong Un?

OSNOS: I was very (laughter) careful about asking about Kim Jong Un because they treat him like a god. This is, you know - the rules are such that anything that disparages Kim Jong Un or dishonors him in any way is a lawbreaking offense, and they would consider that grounds for detention. So when you ask about him - it's perfectly legitimate to ask about him, and I would do so in talking about his readiness for war, his perception of American will and resolve. But I didn't ask very many questions about his personal life partly because the best information on that is really available outside North Korea. And I've been making trips to Seoul and Beijing and spending time in Washington in order to answer some of those questions.

So I guess when I asked them questions about Kim Jong Un, I asked them things like, when he goes to a missile launch and he celebrates this successful missile launch, what does he actually want the United States to take away from that? What message is he trying to send? And that's their job - is to try to craft the message the government sends. And so their answer to that was that we need you to understand that there is - in the end, there is nothing that will stop us from taking steps to protect ourselves if we believe that you're going to strike us first. That's a big point.

We sometimes overlook what a fundamental difference it means if a country is prepared to take a pre-emptive step to protect itself or to attack an enemy. But North Korea over the last four years has begun to talk about pre-emptive strikes. And they were - that was one of the first things that they wanted to talk about with me - was, they said, Donald Trump has talked about the possibility of a preventive war with North Korea, meaning a war that the United States would start in order to prevent North Korea from acquiring greater threatening capability. And they said, but you need to understand the United States is not the only country that's capable of a preventive war.

GROSS: OK, so what you're talking about here is if North Korea thinks that the U.S. is going to launch a pre-emptive war because the U.S. thinks that North Korea is going to attack the U.S., then North Korea will pre-empt the pre-emptive (laughter) war and launch first. So it's this - I know there's usually empirical evidence about what missiles are being moved where and so on, but it sounds like there's a lot of mind reading going on here. And it's hard to read Donald Trump's mind, and it's hard to read Kim Jong Un's mind. That seems kind of frightening.

OSNOS: You know, it is a kind of psychological gamesmanship, but in some ways, this is not new. And we need to sometimes step back and remind ourselves that this is a problem that the world has faced since 1945. You know, you have had great powers in the Soviet Union and China and the United States that were at one point in our history, in the '60s and '70s and 80s - we all remember the Cold War as being this period of chronic tension when something could set it off. And that was a period in which we formed some theories about how this works.

And one of the greatest thinkers on the subject of deterrence was Thomas Schelling. He was an economist at Harvard and the University of Maryland. He won a Nobel Prize for thinking about deterrence and his writings on the subject. And what he said was that a nuclear standoff is not like two people in a boxing ring in which one will stand and one will fall. It is like two mountain climbers who are tethered together, standing on the edge of a cliff. And they're - each one is trying to persuade the other one that they're willing to take the ultimate step or that they might just slip and take them both down inadvertently. And so it is ultimately a game in the mind much more so than it is about the technical capabilities and what they're actually capable of doing to each other.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos, who covers politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. His article "The Risk Of Nuclear War With North Korea" is in the current issue. After a break, we'll talk more about what he saw and learned in North Korea, and he'll tell us how he managed to get there. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos about his recent reporting trip to North Korea to learn what he could about their nuclear strategy. His article "The Risk Of Nuclear War With North Korea" is in the current edition of The New Yorker. Osnos covers politics and foreign affairs for the magazine. He spent four days last month in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital.

How do you even get to go to North Korea as a reporter for The New Yorker?

OSNOS: Well, it's a harder place to get to partly because we don't have diplomatic relations with North Korea. There is no embassy in Washington. Usually that's how you apply to go to a country as a journalist. But in this case, there is something that I'd heard about for years that's an informal office known as the New York channel. And it exists within North Korea's mission to the U.N. And it consists of a couple of diplomats who are charged with managing really the frontline of the relationship with the U.S. And I got an email for them, and I sent them a note. And they responded.

And I said, look; I'd like to come to North Korea. And they're very cautious about this. They typically allow journalists to come in in large groups to witness parades or for special occasions. But they are a little bit warier of individual reporters who want to talk about the nuclear program. And they said it'll take months, and it did. It took about five months. But in the end, the trip was arranged. They - I think they concluded that they had a message that they wanted to send to the rest of the world that wasn't getting out. And for that reason, they needed to let some somebody and to tell it.

GROSS: What do you think the message was?

OSNOS: The message was, we will never give up nuclear weapons. And that message is deeply felt. I mean they will tell you that the reason they will never give up nuclear weapons is that they remember what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, both of whom were developing nuclear weapons at one point, gave them up and, as a result, ended up losing their regime. And both of them ended up executed.

And they talk about this quite openly - that the lesson of Libya, the lesson of Gaddafi's fall was that if you go down that path, you leave yourself vulnerable to the changing whims of the United States, and you can ultimately be cast aside. And so Kim Jong Un and his government are adamant that they will not make the same mistake.

GROSS: Well, that leads to the fact that, say, under Saddam Hussein, you know, a lot of people in Iraq hated him, feared him, had been tortured by him. You know, there were the Sunni insiders who supported him because they were part of his regime. But you know, the Shia and the people outside his regime lived in fear. And so I think the Bush administration thought, well, you overthrow Saddam, and people cheer, and they welcome you and so on - didn't work out that way.

But what sense did you get in North Korea about what people's true feelings were about Kim Jong Un, who calls himself the supreme leader? Did you get any sense from the insiders who you spoke to and from people who were on the street who you tried to talk to?

OSNOS: When you're on the ground in North Korea, you get only the most sanitized and carefully administered official view. There's no question about that. And that view is very clear, which is that Kim Jong Un is a wise and prudent and gifted leader and full stop. And really almost there is no deviation from that. And you know, in and of itself, that's sort of an amazing thing to see just as an example of the effectiveness of propaganda and the effectiveness of the risk of stepping outside of that.

And I should say that, you know, one of the reasons why people are so vigilant - I've worked on a lot of authoritarian countries over the years. I've been to places that are repressive. But North Korea is in a class by itself. I have never been to a place where there is as clear and as rigid a sense of what can be said and not said. And nobody that you will encounter as a foreigner there - even if you're a foreign diplomat who's based there for several years, you will not encounter people who say to you anything disparaging about the leadership.

But outside the country in Seoul and Beijing and places where I met defectors, for instance, you can get a much clearer sense. And what you hear when you talk to defectors in Seoul and other places is that there is a lot of dissatisfaction with Kim Jong Un. He is the third generation of the Kim dynasty to rule the country, but he doesn't have the revolutionary credentials that his grandfather had. He doesn't have the experience that his father had. He grew up in a very cloistered and privileged environment, and they're not exactly sure whether he's got the experience and the wit to be able to pull this off.

But I've spoken to a number of people in the American intelligence community who have looked for examples of a coup, you know, the possibility that people would rise up against him or organize around him. And what they told me is that they've never found any evidence of it because the risks are so dramatic, so profound.

North Korea practices what's known as destruction of three generations, which is that if you are caught organizing against the regime then not only are you punished, but also your children are punished, and your grandchildren are punished. And that has a very powerful effect on preventing any kind of alternative government from gathering force. And that's been a frustration to other countries that have tried to promote civil society or dissent of any kind.

GROSS: You describe how when you buy a newspaper in North Korea, the vendor has to fold the newspaper very carefully so as not to crease the face of a photograph of Kim Jong Un. So that is a level of craziness and narcissism that goes pretty deep. So in addition to having a chilling effect, I mean what does it tell you about the sanity of Kim Jong Un?

OSNOS: I think you hit on a key point, which is, a lot of us ask frankly if Kim Jong Un is crazy. I mean is he mad? You know, here he is putting himself willingly into a confrontation with the United States that could not only destroy his government but also destroy his country. And how can that possibly make sense?

I think there's no question that when it comes to the way that he conducts himself as an individual in that society, it is so secluded and paranoid and detached from ordinary life that there is a - there's something completely crazy about that - I mean the idea that that any time his name is uttered, people describe him as the respected leader, comrade, General Kim Jong Un. I mean it's almost reflexive. But that's a different question from whether he's crazy when it comes to national security and foreign policy. And that's really a different category in that.

Some of his harshest critics in the U.S. government - I mean people at the highest ranks of the national security structure and the intelligence community - they say, look; we think he is unpleasant. We think he is hostile. We think he is a threat to the United States, but we don't think he's crazy. And we don't think he's irrational, and that's a crucial fact. What they think is that he is doing what he needs to do to protect his own existence and to protect his government. You know, in the strictest sense in kind of international relations terms, being rational means being able to recognize your national interest and promote it. And in that sense, he's not crazy.

GROSS: Were you in North Korea for any of President Trump's tweets about North Korea?

OSNOS: Yeah. I was in North Korea at one point when Donald Trump tweeted. On August 17, he tweeted, quote, "Kim Jong Un of North Korea made a very wise and well-reasoned decision. The alternative would have been catastrophic and unacceptable." And I have to admit; at first, I couldn't figure out what he was talking about because I'd been there for several days. And from the North Korean perspective, they hadn't done anything that Donald Trump should regard as a very wise and well-reasoned decision. But actually what had happened was that Donald Trump and his advisers had concluded that Kim had blinked in the nuclear standoff. He had pulled back from a threat to launch four missiles towards American territory in Guam. And so they decided that in order to recognize that, that they - he put out this tweet.

And so then it was kind of a fascinating thing to watch because I watched as the North Korean government officials who I was with tried to make sense of it. You know, they couldn't quite decide whether they should dispute it, whether they should embrace it, whether this was an opening or whether this was just an impulsive move by the president. Pak Song Il, who is a - you know, the North Korean government analyst I was with - he was frustrated. He said, Trump only read one half of the statement, meaning one half of this declaration about whether they were going to launch missiles or not. He meant that they - North Korean government didn't intend to blink.

And so I - you know, I happened to be interviewing a government official that morning, and he told me he was kind of mystified, you know? He asked me to read the tweet twice. And afterwards, he said (groans), you know? He said, I wish the United States would just leave us alone. And that was in its own way a kind of a plaintive, I thought very honest sense of exasperation. They are - in the end, they really don't want the U.S. to leave them alone. They want the U.S. to deal with them. But they are also frustrated and confused and worried about what Donald Trump might do.

GROSS: So they see President Trump as unpredictable, unreadable and frightening.

OSNOS: That's right. And they don't know whether Donald Trump is, as one of them put it to me, irrational or too smart. A government official in North Korea said to me...

GROSS: That's kind of the question I asked you about...


GROSS: ...Your perception of Kim Jong Un.

OSNOS: Exactly. Yeah, that's the really amazing fact about where we are right now, which is, North Korea is asking many of the same questions about Donald Trump that we ask about Kim Jong Un. Is he rational? Does he have a coherent plan? And does he recognize the full risks of what he's doing?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker who covers politics and foreign affairs. And he has a new article in The New Yorker called "The Risk Of Nuclear War With North Korea," and it's based in part on four days in August that he spent in North Korea. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and my guest is Evan Osnos. We're talking about his article in the current edition of The New Yorker. The article's called "The Risk Of Nuclear War With North Korea." It's based in part on four days he spent in North Korea in August. It's based as well on many interviews he did in America and in South Korea. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, who covers politics and foreign affairs.

So there's a very tight control in North Korea on information, on popular culture. You put on a TV. You had a TV in your room. What did you see?

OSNOS: Well, in my room, I was sort of living in a parallel world from North Korea outside. They have Asian satellite channels in the room of a foreign guest. So I didn't have North Korean television there. I had, you know, Christian evangelists and Singaporean cooking shows. But when I went out into the hotel lobby or when I went to any restaurant, there was always a TV playing. And on the TV was the main state broadcasting channel. And that channel shows nostalgic films from the 1950s and '60s that celebrate the origins of North Korea. You know, in the North Korean imagination, those were the glory days. That was when things were great. You know, they were richer than South Korea. They had this rich patron in Moscow. The Soviet Union was still intact.

And so very much the North Korean government today tries to channel the memory of that and say, look; that's who we were, and that's who we could be again. And if you watch North Korean TV, you see it over and over and over again. And then they have a sports channel and an entertainment channel, but those only broadcast occasionally because the main event is really about this political psychological drama about channeling the lost moments they - of North Korean history.

GROSS: I'm sure you wanted to see as much of North Korea as you would be allowed. So where did your minders allow you to be taken?

OSNOS: Well, one of the things we did was we left Pyongyang, and we went out and drove across the countryside for a couple of hours to reach the DMZ - the Demilitarized Zone which separates North Korea from South Korea. And you know, that's a pretty fascinating place. It's - you know, the war is still technically on. We signed a cease fire in 1953 but never a peace treaty. And so South Korea and North Korea are still technically at a state of war. And you have large numbers of troops on both sides of the border. And the North Koreans wanted me to go down and see that.

And they brought me to this little room that is straddling the border. It's a hut. And it's the room where the two sides get together and negotiate, and it's very tense. There are guards on both sides. And the dividing line down the middle of the table is a set of microphones. And if you step across that line, you are in South Korea. And I did that and sort of looked back across at the north.

And they said to me, you know, we are - what they wanted me to know was - this was one of those moments that I thought was revealing. The military lieutenant colonel who was taking me around, Colonel Pang, said to me, our respected leader, as they call him - Kim Jong Un has visited this very spot. He's come to the front line. And he said to me, would Donald Trump dare to do that? And I said well, yeah, actually (laughter). I think he probably would.

And I thought that was important because they have in their own minds created a narrative that their leadership and their country is braver and stronger than the United States and that the United States is weak and ultimately backs down. And that's actually quite a dangerous perception because that may not be the case. And this president is willing to take larger risks, President Trump is, than some of the presidents before him. And so one of the dangers here is that if they regard Trump as too similar to his predecessors, they may misunderstand what he's willing to do.

GROSS: Wow. It's interesting that you got to see that.

OSNOS: Yeah. I - you know, even with the restrictions, I was kind of amazed at the things that they would - that they would show off.

GROSS: What else?

OSNOS: Probably the most memorable thing I saw when I was there was a school. I'd ask to see some schools, and they took me to a place that's clearly a showpiece. You know, they love this place, and it's called the Pyongyang secondary school for orphans. And it's, you know, the best of the best. This is not what an average North Korean school looks like. It was brand new. It was, you know, 400 students with the best facilities, a pool, you know, a new gym, all the chemistry equipment they could want.

But it was actually revealing in unintended ways because the first thing they brought me to see was an exhibition on the first floor that's dedicated to the day, the two-hour period in which Kim Jong Un visited the school. And it was photo after photo of Kim Jong Un walking down the hall, Kim Jong Un touching a chair, Kim Jong Un smoking a cigarette. And they said that the students are brought through the exhibition once a month in order to walk in the footsteps of their respected leader, as they put it. And then they put - brought me over and they said this is a photograph of Kim Jong Un touching a blanket, and here is the blanket in a glass case. And I - it was one of those moments where you just have to step back and realize that we are dealing with a society that is operating on a very different bandwidth than we are every day.

GROSS: So one of the things that's definitely ratcheted up tensions between the U.S. and North Korea and increased fear within the U.S. is that North Korea in July launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile that has the potential of reaching the mainland of the U.S. And more recently, it detonated a bomb, a nuclear bomb, six or seven times more powerful than the bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Do you think that this is a sign that very recently they had technological breakthroughs that enable them to do that or do you think it's more a sign that they were, like, holding off to test these things at a moment when they really want to show off what they're capable of?

OSNOS: Well, it's neither simply one or the other. It really is the result of about a three or four-year process of dramatic acceleration in the pace of development of their nuclear and missile program, that beginning in about 2012, which is when Kim Jong Un, the leader, came into power, they began to sprint. And what that means is that they began to do many more missile tests than his father had ever done. They began to do them more frequently. They began to allow people to fail without consequences. So they were sort of acknowledging that these tests weren't working. And then they began to test their nuclear weapons also more frequently. And the goal was to try to achieve the capability that matters, which is the capability of putting a nuclear weapon on the mainland United States.

And the view from outside of - the view of intelligence analysts in the U.S. and elsewhere is that once they got within striking distance, then they decided we're going to go for it no matter what. So even if the United States escalates its threats, even if sanctions continue, we are now close enough that we will do whatever we need to in order to make it to that threshold. And that's the threshold that they started to reach this summer. And that's one of the reasons why you began to see one after another after another.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article, "The Risk Of Nuclear War With North Korea," is in the current issue. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Evan Osnos about his article "The Risk Of Nuclear War With North Korea," which is in the current issue of The New Yorker. He spent four days last month in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

When you're speaking to people in North Korea, to your minders who are monitoring you, you're relying on your translator - aren't you? - to accurately convey what you're saying.

OSNOS: That's right.

GROSS: So how do you know if you can really have confidence in the translator? I mean, because if they translate something in a way that's subtly different from what you're saying, that could really be used against you.

OSNOS: Yeah. I came back with an interesting set of audio recordings. I mean, I had been carrying around my digital recorder as I do on every story. And, you know, I'd hold it up. And people, as they would be answering me, they would be talking into my recorder. And I came back to the U.S. and a Korean translator helped me interpret what was said on the ground because sometimes you're absolutely right. The Korean translator would take some of the questions I posed and make them - and sort of gin them up to be more political or more - to make them sound better to North Korean ears.

I'll give you an example. At one point, when we were walking around in Pyongyang, I had asked people whether they had seen the city change very much over the decades. And the question, as it was interpreted to the North Korean man on the street, was our city is now full of glorious achievements and architecture that the world envies. What do you think is the most important achievement that we have created? And so the results of that were more suited to the second version of the question than the first. But in its own way, I found that also terrifically revealing because what you heard was the interpreter's effort to try to maintain this image - this mythology about the country.

GROSS: So if North Korea wants to play in the global community of nations and they want diplomatic relations with the U.S., but they don't want to give up their nuclear program, what if - what if the U.S. said, OK, we're going to open up relations with you. And we're going to try to avoid a nuclear confrontation by having diplomatic relations. And we understand that North Korea is not going to give up their nuclear weapons. Is that a conceivable angle that might be played. And if so, what would the world look like if that happened?

OSNOS: That is a conceivable angle. In fact, I think that's a very likely destination. It's hard for the U.S. government to say that now because they certainly don't want to give up the possibility of North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons. But most of the people you talk to who specialize in this subject agree that we're probably going to end up in a situation where North Korea has nuclear weapons. It is a nuclear state, and we learn to co-exist with it. And there are various ways that can look. You know, North Korea wants us to treat it like Pakistan, which is, after all, a member of the international community. It's got nuclear weapons. The U.S. never acknowledged it, never celebrated it but learned to live with it and doesn't treat it as a hostile threat.

I think another version that you hear promoted these days is the possibility that we may eventually treat North Korea a bit like the way we treated Cuba, even when we had a hostile relationship, which is that we had an interest section in Havana. And the possibility might be that even if we don't have full diplomatic relations with North Korea, that we open up some kind of channel so that we know what's going on and that we're able to protect our people on the ground.

But at this stage, the reality is that it's too hostile to imagine us opening formal diplomatic relations. The most logical and conceivable first step is that we get to the negotiating table at all and begin to try to come up with a framework that would de-escalate the tensions, which means, in practice, trying to get the North Koreans to slow down or freeze the level of development that they're doing on their weapons programs. And in return, the U.S. might freeze, as it's known, the level of joint-military exercises that it conducts with South Korea. These are the kinds of things that might be in play. But at this point, we're a long way from formal diplomatic recognition. The first step is really getting to the table at all.

GROSS: Evan Osnos, it's always so great to have you on our show. Thank you so much for your reporting and for joining us again.

OSNOS: Thanks for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Evan Osnos covers politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. His article "The Risk Of Nuclear War With North Korea" is in the current issue.


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be jazz pianist Fred Hersch. He has a new memoir about what it was like to start his jazz career in the closet and then, nearly 30 years ago, come out as gay and as having HIV. He nearly died nine years ago and spent several weeks in a medically-induced coma. Later, he wrote music inspired by his coma dreams. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH'S "ELF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.