PYONGYANG, North Korea
To fly into North Korea on an old Russian aircraft is to step into an alternate universe, one in which “the Supreme Leader” defeats craven U.S. imperialists, in which triplets are taken from parents to be raised by the state, in which nuclear war is imminent but survivable — and in which there is zero sympathy for U.S. detainees like Otto Warmbier.
Warmbier was the University of Virginia student who was arrested for stealing a poster, then sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and eventually returned to the United States in a vegetative state.
“He broke the law in our country,” said Ri Yong Pil, a senior Foreign Ministry official, adding that Warmbier was returned (a week before his death) as a “humanitarian” act. Another senior ministry official, Choe Kang Il, insisted that North Korea had provided excellent care and spent “all the money for nursing” him.
Something in me snapped. I asked how North Koreans could possibly boast about their spending on a young man when he was in a coma only because of them. Choe replied just as hotly that Warmbier had not been mistreated and was in fine condition when he was sent back home.
“The U.S. administration, or some people with a certain intention, let him die,” Choe said. “This must be intended to foster and spread anti-communist hatred within America.”
Officials offered no apology and gave no ground, reflecting a hard line toward the United States that I found everywhere on this visit; Choe derided President Donald Trump as “a crazy man,” “a thug” and “a pathetic man with a big mouth.” I’ve been covering North Korea on and off since the 1980s, and this five-day trip has left me more alarmed than ever about the risks of a catastrophic confrontation.
I was given a visa to North Korea, as were three other New York Times journalists. The U.S. State Department promptly gave us an exemption from the travel ban to North Korea and issued special passports good for a single trip here.
Far more than when I previously visited, North Korea is galvanizing its people to expect a nuclear war with the United States. High school students march in the streets in military uniform every day to denounce America. Posters and billboards along the public roads show missiles destroying the U.S. Capitol and shredding the American flag. In fact, images of missiles are everywhere — in a kindergarten playground, at a dolphin show, on state television. This military mobilization is accompanied by the ubiquitous assumption that North Korea could not only survive a nuclear conflict, but also win it.
“If we have to go to war, we won’t hesitate to totally destroy the United States,” explained Mun Hyok Myong, a 38-year-old teacher visiting an amusement park.
Ryang Song Chol, a 41-year-old factory worker, looked surprised when I asked if his country could survive a war with America. “We would certainly win,” he said.
These interviews were conducted in the presence of two Foreign Ministry officials, but even if they weren’t, there is no chance that ordinary people would speak freely to a foreign reporter. This is perhaps the most tightly controlled country in the world, so such quotes should be seen as reflecting a government script — in this case, a disturbingly jingoistic one.