NY Times columnist Nick Kristof has returned from a five-day stay in North Korea and is convinced more than ever that the Trump regime is headed for a devastating military conflict with Pyongyang.
North Korea is the most rigidly controlled country in the world, with no open dissent, no religion and no civil society, and there is zero chance that anyone will express dissatisfaction with the government.
Still, the conversations were illuminating. Ordinary North Koreans were unfamiliar with the name of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died days after being returned to the United States in a vegetative state after his detention in Pyongyang for stealing a poster. But they knew all about President Trump’s threats to destroy their country. That’s because the government wants them to know about Trump’s threats, because they bolster Kim’s nationalist narrative that he protects Korea from imperialist American aggressors.
Being on the ground in a country lets you see things and absorb their power: the speaker on the walls of homes to feed propaganda; the pins that every adult wears with portraits of members of the Kim family; the daily power outages, but also signs that the economy is growing despite international sanctions; the Confucian emphasis on dignity that makes officials particularly resent Trump’s personal attacks on Kim; the hardening of attitudes since my last visit, in 2005; and the bizarre confidence that North Korea can not only survive a nuclear war with the U.S. but also emerge as victor.
At one factory, we came upon workers doing their “political study.” North Koreans explained that they have political study for two hours a day, plus most of the day on Saturday, so I asked what they focused on these days. “We must fight against the Americans!” one woman answered earnestly. And then the North Koreans in the room dissolved into laughter, perhaps because of the oddness of saying this to Americans.
A visit humanizes North Koreans, who outside the country sometimes come across as robots. In person, you are reminded that they laugh, flirt, worry, love and yearn to impress.
A military officer greeted me with a bone-crushing handshake, and I asked if that was meant to intimidate and convey to the Yankee imperialists that North Koreans are muscular supermen. He laughed in embarrassment, and when we ended the interview, he was much gentler.
I left North Korea fearing that we are far too complacent about the risk of a cataclysmic war that could kill millions. And that’s why reporting from within North Korea is crucial: There simply is no substitute for being in a place. It’s a lesson we should have learned from the run-up to the Iraq war, when the reporting was too often from the Washington echo chamber rather than the field. When the stakes are millions of lives and official communications channels are nonexistent, then journalism can sometimes serve as a bridge — and as a warning.
Yes, we must carefully weigh the risks — physical risks and the danger of being used by propagandists — and work to mitigate them.
But I have a sinking feeling in my gut, just as I had on the eve of the Iraq war, that our president may be careening blindly toward war. In that case, the job of journalists is to go out and report, however imperfectly, and try to ring alarm bells in the night.
I wouldn't exactly call Kristof's column from January 2003 he links in he last paragraph there an objection to the Iraq War, rather more of a grim resignation of the reality of the mess he admits the Bush administration could (and did) cause. But he does appears to have a much clearer objection to the North Korean drumbeat as there is no good military solution at this point, and no scenario involving US forces that doesn't lead to millions dead in South Korea.
And yet that seems to be where we are headed at this point. Every diplomatic overture is crushed by Donald Trump's rapacious ego, China isn't doing very much to stop Pyongyang, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is openly telling people that diplomacy will continue "until the first bombs drop".
I'm hoping that the bluster will pass as Trump becomes embroiled in the fallout from the Mueller investigation and soon, but that too raises the possibility that he could order strikes to stay in power. At this point nothing would shock me anymore.