The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea
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The Backstory | The Backstory | Episode 2
The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea
On the ground in Pyongyang: Could Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump goad each other into a devastating confrontation?
Read the story.
Released on 09/14/2017
Well, one of the things that became quite clear
when I got there,
I was spending time with a lot of the people
whose job it is,
is to analyze and interpret the United States.
They read our press, they read Donald Trump's tweets,
they read every word that comes out from the US government.
And then they decide what move they're gonna make.
And first of all, they're baffled, frankly.
They're mystified.
They can't quite figure out
what game Donald Trump is playing.
They're wondering,
Is he operating from a coherent strategy?
They said,
Is he operating like Sun Tzu in The Art of War?
Or is he actually making it up as he goes along?
And they haven't decided.
[Interviewer] You apply to go to North Korea
early this year.
The US has no diplomatic relations with North Korea.
Describe the process and the people who made this possible.
It turned out, when you ask around,
that there's something called The New York Channel,
which is an office within the North Korean mission
to the UN.
So I contacted the New York Channel,
and it turns out it's basically two guys
who work in an office in New York City.
And they go everywhere together.
Literally everywhere.
North Korea wants to make sure
that its diplomats don't defect
or don't get recruited as spies.
And so as a result,
they're always dispatched in teams of two.
And I said I want to visit Pyongyang, and they said,
Well, let's meet.
[Interviewer] Suddenly, the prospect
of a nuclear confrontation between US
and the most hermetic power in the world enter the realm
of possibility.
And the two men who are making these decisions are
Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
And let's remind ourselves,
these are not two people who came up through the military,
through politics, through diplomacy.
These are two men who had no previous political office.
Between the two of them, they have a combined seven years
of political leadership experience.
And, to be frank, this is no great secret.
Neither one of them is known as a paragon of rational,
calm decision-making.
They're both impetuous,
they both wanna be known as unpredictable.
They wanna be confrontational.
They pride themselves on being tough.
And this is a recipe that we really haven't encountered
in the history of nuclear diplomacy very often.
Kim Jong-un is very easy to underestimate.
He's a faintly comical figure, you know?
He's got this haircut straight out of the fifties.
He's got, obviously, a strange way of going
around the country and pointing at things.
And what you begin to realize as you dig further
into his background is that actually,
he's made some very shrewd choices.
The haircut?
That's actually a political device.
He decided very early on that one of the ways
he was gonna succeed was by looking like his grandfather,
Kim Il-sung.
Kim Il-sung is immensely popular in North Korea.
He was the founder of the country.
He was the guerrilla,
who according to their own self-narrative,
led them to victory.
Kim Jong-un has never been in the military.
He had none of that background.
And so what he did, is he draped himself
in the family history.
He put on weight, started wearing glasses,
started walking like an old man.
And this worked.
When you go to North Korea today,
people will talk about the fact that he looks
like his grandfather.
The propaganda promotes this image all the time.
And what he cared about most was basketball.
He was obsessed with basketball.
Slept with a basketball.
He used to draw little pictures of Michael Jordan
on his notebooks.
And after the games in the schoolyard,
he would pull his team aside and dissect
why they had won or lost.
Years later, in some ways, this became important,
because one of the very few contacts the United States
has had with Kim Jong-un
is because Dennis Rodman has been able to go see him.
He's my friend, first.
He's my friend.
I don't (bleep) the world.
He's my (bleep) friend.
This is one of those things you never say
unless you're writing a story about North Korea,
but I was trying to work out a plan about how to...
How to go see him.
Ambassador Rodman, really, let's be honest.
No, it's...
I mean, that's a totally fascinating, weird pocket
of this thing, too, is how did Dennis Rodman become
one of the best known conduits
to the North Korean supreme leader, Kim Jong-un?
That came about purely by chance, frankly.
In 2013, Vice Media was looking for a way to get
into North Korea, and they came up with an idea.
They said,
What if we bring over some basketball players?
They love the Bulls.
Kim Jong-un was on record saying he loved
the 1990s Chicago Bulls.
So Rodman went over to North Korea in 2013
with some members of the Harlem Globetrotters.
And they played an exhibition game.
And to their astonishment, Kim Jong-un showed up.
And he invited them to dinner.
And then he invited them to come back.
He invited Rodman to come and spend a week with him
at his seaside villa.
So, you know,
this is somebody who marches by the beat of his own drum.
The Kim dynasty places an enormous emphasis on secrecy.
It's not good dinner-time conversation,
but Kim Jong-il, when he traveled abroad,
had his aids bag up all of his feces and urine
and bring it back to North Korea,
because he didn't want other countries to be able to test it
to measure his health.
And I think we look at that sometimes, and we think,
Why is North Korea so paranoid about the outside world?
Do they really think we're about to storm
over the border?
The answer is yes.
And the answer is yes because of how they think
about the Korean War.
It became a huge part of their self-image,
that they are in a titanic struggle with the United States,
a never-ending struggle with the United States.
And if they don't keep up their defenses,
then they will be made victims again.
And that message is drilled into people all day long.
All day long.
I went to a middle school while I was in Pyongyang.
And I was going around as you do,
and you meet kids in classrooms.
And at one point I said to the kids,
Does anybody have any questions they wanna ask me?
And a kid stood up, he was about ten or eleven, and he said,
Why is the United States trying to provoke a war
with North Korea?
And why is it preventing us
from developing nuclear weapons?
I didn't really have a good answer for him.
And he was totally unimpressed, by the way.
(chuckles) He's like,
the only American he's ever met,
and the guy doesn't have an answer
to the most urgent question facing this kid.
But, you know, that gives you a window into the fact
that from the very moment that they enter school
and all the way through adulthood,
they're being reminded that the greatest threat
to their well-being, to their families' health and future,
is the United States.
And that's a very powerful narrative to have
to push back against.
I spent most of my time in North Korea
with a guy named Mr. Pock.
He is the analyst from the Foreign Ministry,
who was assigned to take me around.
And here we are on two sides of this intractable conflict,
trying to read the other side's cues,
trying to make sense of it.
And I remember having conversations with Mr. Pock,
where I would say,
Are you seriously prepared for a nuclear war?
I mean, this is what he's talking about all day long.
We're gonna do it, we're gonna press the button.
And I just said,
That's ludicrous, right?
I mean, you're doing this for the sake of theater?
And what he said was,
Look, we've been through tremendous suffering
in our history.
We survived the Korean War,
we survived famine in the 1990s.
It's easy to imagine it as this place of brainwashed drones
going about their lives in a kind of grim, miserable march.
The reality is something else.
Propaganda is everywhere.
And it is powerful.
But people are living their lives,
and North Korea has its reasons for doing the things
that it does.
As strange as they may seem to us.
But we can't begin to make smart choices for ourselves,
and ultimately for the rest of the world,
unless we actually really sit down and try to understand
what they're saying.
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