The Thing About North Korea That's Toughest to Understand

'New Yorker' reporter travels to Pyongyang, assesses prospects of war
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 8, 2017 10:28 AM CDT
We Have a Dangerous Knowledge Gap on N. Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, arrives for the official opening of the Ryomyong residential area, in Pyongyang, North Korea, in April 2017.   (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

Reporter Evan Osnos of the New Yorker traveled to North Korea in August to gauge first-hand the mood of the nation amid the escalating rhetoric between Kim Jong Un and President Trump. The result is his "Letter From Pyongyang," a lengthy article filled with anecdotes of what he was allowed to see (including more cars on the streets of the capital, a scattered few people with smartphones, a billboard showing a bombed-out US Capitol) and lots of uncertainty. One of his government handlers, for instance, confessed that he is often at a loss when trying to interpret Trump's statements and actions. “He might be irrational—or too smart. We don’t know." The handler wonders whether Trump's "fire and fury" threat is part of a strategy akin to the Chinese Art of War. "If he's not driving toward a point, then what is he doing? That is our big question."

But Osnos makes clear that the knowledge gap goes both ways. "Every country valorizes its war record, but North Korea’s mythology—the improbable victory, the divine wisdom of the Kim family, and America’s enduring weakness and hostility—has shaped its conception of the present to a degree that is hard for the rest of the world to understand." A prevailing mindset in the North is that its citizens have long endured hardship, not only in the Korean War but in the famine of the 1990s, and yet have persevered. War with America, even a nuclear one, would be the same, goes the thinking. "Iraq taught us the cost of going to war against an adversary that we do not fully understand," writes Osnos. "Before we take a radical step into Asia, we should be sure that we’re not making that mistake again." Click for the full story. (More Longform stories.)

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