Korea and its neighbor Manchuria had been of great importance to the USSR, the PRC (People's Republic of China) and Japan since the nineteenth century. Following this tradition, after World War II the USSR made an attempt to occupy Korea. Not wanting the Soviets to grab too much territory, the US occupied the southern half of Korea, south of the 38th Parallel. Much as it had in Germany just after World War Two, these two occupations set the status quo: North Korea, that area of the Korean peninsula north of the 38th parallel became Communist, while South Korea was the province of a nationalist, anti-communist government.
The Korean War erupted on June 25, 1950 in the middle of the burgeoning Cold War, an international struggle between the US and the USSR for world domination of their competing ideologies, Democracy/Capitalism versus Communism. While the Soviet Union never got directly involved in the fighting, it did supply North Korea with weapons and supplies. The US, on the other hand, did commit its own troops as part of a UN international-peace keeping force. In reality, the UN force was in name only; the troops were made up of almost entirely American forces, with some American allies. The Korean War was the first instance that it became clear that the UN could be used by the US as a foreign policy tool.
It is somewhat surprising that only a few years after letting enormous China turn Communist without getting seriously involved, as well as watching Eastern Europe fall under the "iron curtain", the US would then become embroiled in an Asian land war over the fate of strategically insignificant Korea. The Korean War thus represented an important shift in US Cold War policy. By 1950, a loss to communism anywhere was thought of as a loss everywhere. The beginnings of the later Domino Theory were already present in an early form.
The US got involved in Korea to save face and to appear strong against communism, not because Korea was vital to American interests. Somewhat ironically, South Korea was only a sham democracy under Syngman Rhee, who was really just as tyrannical as North Korea's Kim Il-Sung. Once again, this set a Cold War pattern for the US: support of anti-communists who were quite blatantly dictators themselves, and the tautological justification of that US support for the simple reason that these dictators were anti-communist.
One of the significant results of the Korean War was that it gave the US reason to increase its military expenditure four-fold. Under Truman, military expenditure increased rapidly, laying the foundations for the so-called military industrial complex that existed throughout the Cold War. Perhaps on a more positive note, it was during the Korean War that black and white troops were first integrated in the US army, an important step on the road to civil rights. The Korean War also strengthened the US relationship with Britain, which sent troops for the UN peacekeeping force. Finally, it was during the Korean War (and partially because of it) that the Democratic monopoly of the Presidency, going back to before World War II, finally ended with the election of Eisenhower.
Another result of the Korean War was the ascendance of the People's Republic of China onto the world stage. Fighting against the US, China received aid from the Soviets, helping them to become a major military power. The US had proved the fulcrum in both World War One and World War Two, with its forces providing the force needed for its European allies to overcome its enemies. The Chinese forces, however, fought the US to a standstill, as represented by the reinstitution of the 38th parallel as the dividing line between North and South; in fighting against the US in the first war the United States entered and did not win, China established itself as a power to be reckoned with, and a communist power at that.
The Korean War also proved the tenacity and skill of the Communist Asian militaries, something that would be reaffirmed by the Vietnam War in the 1960s. In fact, remarkable similarities exist between the Korean War and the Vietnam War; from the US support of a dictatorial and corrupt anti-communist regime to its conception of communism as a monolithic entity, under which all communist nations were necessarily allies, rather than individuals to be dealt with separately. However, though those parallels, Vietnam era policy-makers did not apply the lessons of the Korean War to the Vietnam War. Rather, they did not seem to recognize those lessons as lessons at all, and repeated in the Vietnam War many of their previous mistakes.
The Korean War also showed the impact a single individual can have on history. General MacArthur's brilliant strategies, willfulness, egomania, and refusal to obey orders dramatically influenced the outcome of the war, in both positive and negative ways.
Finally, the Korean War demonstrated the new terms of the new post-WWII era, and showed how difficult it would be to fight a limited war under those terms. Although the United States attempted to keep the war on a very small scale, it quickly snowballed out of proportion, involving China, at times seeming as if it might become a World War III. Looked at another way, though, the Korean War can be considered a success: although the war did at times get out of hand, the US and the USSR were able to avoid direct confrontation, especially since the USSR fought mainly by proxy. Perhaps most importantly of all, though it was fought just five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, the Korean War was not an atomic war, avoiding both the possibility of immediate nuclear holocaust (since the USSR by then had its won bombs) and setting a pattern that would continue throughout the Cold War.
1. The Madman Theory
The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, so there is no embassy in Washington, but for years the two countries have relied on the “New York channel,” an office inside North Korea’s mission to the United Nations, to handle the unavoidable parts of our nonexistent relationship. The office has, among other things, negotiated the release of prisoners and held informal talks about nuclear tensions. In April, I contacted the New York channel and requested permission to visit Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The New York channel consists mostly of two genial middle-aged men: Pak Song Il, a husky diplomat with a gray brush cut; and his aide-de-camp, Kwon Jong Gun, who is younger and thinner. They go everywhere together. (The North Korean government has diplomats work in pairs, to prevent them from defecting, or being recruited as spies.) Under U.S. law, they can travel only twenty-five miles from Columbus Circle. Pak and Kwon met me near their office, for lunch at the Palm Too. They cautioned me that it might take several months to arrange a trip. North Korea periodically admits large groups of American journalists, to witness parades and special occasions, but it is more hesitant when it comes to individual reporters, who require close monitoring and want to talk about the nuclear program.
Americans are accustomed to eruptions of hostility with North Korea, but in the past six months the enmity has reached a level rarely seen since the end of the Korean War, in 1953. The crisis has been hastened by fundamental changes in the leadership on both sides. In the six years since Kim Jong Un assumed power, at the age of twenty-seven, he has tested eighty-four missiles—more than double the number that his father and grandfather tested. Just before Donald Trump took office, in January, he expressed a willingness to wage a “preventive” war in North Korea, a prospect that previous Presidents dismissed because it would risk an enormous loss of life. Trump has said that in his one meeting with Barack Obama, during the transition, Obama predicted that North Korea, more than any other foreign-policy challenge, would test Trump. In private, Trump has told aides, “I will be judged by how I handle this.”
On the Fourth of July, North Korea passed a major threshold: it launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile powerful enough to reach the mainland United States. In response, on July 21st, authorities in Hawaii announced that they would revive a network of Cold War-era sirens, to alert the public in the event of a nuclear strike. Trump said that he hopes to boost spending on missile defense by “many billions of dollars.” On September 3rd, after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon far larger than any it had revealed before—seven times the size of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, warned that a threat to America or its allies would trigger a “massive military response.”
A few days after the July 4th missile test, Pak told me that I could book a flight to Pyongyang. I submitted a list of people I wanted to interview, including diplomats and Kim Jong Un himself. About the latter, Pak only laughed. (Kim has never given an interview.) After Pak stopped laughing, he said I could talk to other officials. I wanted to understand how North Koreans think about the kind of violence that their country so often threatens. Were the threats serious, or mere posturing? How did they imagine that a war would unfold? Before my arrival in North Korea, I spent time in Washington, Seoul, and Beijing; many people in those places, it turned out, are asking the same things about the United States.
About a week before my flight to Pyongyang, America’s dealings with North Korea deteriorated further. On August 5th, as punishment for the missile test, the U.N. Security Council adopted some of the strongest sanctions against any country in decades, blocking the sale of coal, iron, and other commodities, which represent a third of North Korea’s exports. President Trump, in impromptu remarks at his golf club in New Jersey, said that “any more threats to the United States” will be met “with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” A few hours later, North Korea threatened to fire four missiles into the Pacific Ocean near the American territory of Guam, from which warplanes depart for flights over the Korean Peninsula. Trump replied, in a tweet, that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.”
Suddenly, the prospect of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the most hermetic power on the globe had entered a realm of psychological calculation reminiscent of the Cold War, and the two men making the existential strategic decisions were not John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev but a senescent real-estate mogul and reality-television star and a young third-generation dictator who has never met another head of state. Between them, they had less than seven years of experience in political leadership.
Brinkmanship, according to Thomas Schelling, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who pioneered the theory of nuclear deterrence, is the art of “manipulating the shared risk of war.” In 1966, he envisaged a nuclear standoff as a pair of mountain climbers, tied together, fighting at the edge of a cliff. Each will move ever closer to the edge, so that the other begins to fear that he might slip and take both of them down. It is a matter of creating the right amount of fear without losing control. Schelling wrote, “However rational the adversaries, they may compete to appear the more irrational, impetuous, and stubborn.” But what if the adversaries are irrational, impetuous, and stubborn?
Three days after Trump’s “locked and loaded” tweet, I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang. The flight was mostly empty, except for some Chinese businessmen and Iranian diplomats. I was accompanied by the photographer Max Pinckers and his assistant, Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras. In the air, I deleted from my laptop some books about North Korea; the government is especially sensitive about portrayals of the Kim family. (When you buy a North Korean newspaper with an image of Kim Jong Un on the front page, the clerk folds it carefully, to avoid creasing his face.) The airport was quiet and immaculate. At customs, when I opened my suitcase, I saw that I had forgotten to discard two books: “The Great Successor,” an account of Kim’s ascent, and “The Impossible State.” The customs officer called over a colleague, who flipped through the pages and alerted his superiors. I was led to a room, where an officer told me that the books are “very disparaging about the D.P.R.K.” He wanted to know where and when I had bought them, and whether I had read them. After some discussion, I was told to write a statement promising “never to bring them to the D.P.R.K. again.” I signed it, the books were confiscated, and I hustled on.
I was approached by a smiling man in a crisp white short-sleeved button-down shirt with a small red pin on his left breast, bearing a likeness of Kim Il Sung—Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, and the first leader of North Korea. (Citizens over the age of sixteen are expected to wear a badge celebrating at least one of the Kims.) He introduced himself, in English, as Mr. Pak, of the Foreign Ministry’s Institute for American Studies, and said that he would be my guide. I followed him outside, where the air was clear and still. Pak presented the others who would be accompanying us: two drivers and a slim young man with a military bearing named Mr. Kim, who provided only one-word answers to my occasional queries. Pak and I climbed into a Toyota S.U.V.
Pak—by coincidence, he has the same full name, Pak Song Il, as the senior member of the New York channel—is thirty-five years old, with short bushy hair and a placid demeanor. Most of North Korea’s twenty-five million people are not permitted to travel abroad, but Pak’s job has allowed him to visit several countries, which he described in terms of their cleanliness: Switzerland (very clean); Belgium (not so clean); Bangladesh (not clean at all). In 2015, he went to Utah (clean) for a nongovernmental exchange attended by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The experience convinced him that Mormons have a lot in common with North Koreans. “When the L.D.S. started, they were hated,” he told me. “They were sent to the desert. But they made it thrive. They are organized like a bee colony, where everyone works for one purpose and they would die for it. And they make huge output, as a result. We understand each other very well.”
Pak spends most of his time analyzing American politics and news reports, trying to divine America’s intentions regarding North Korea. Since the election of Donald Trump, he said, the task had become more demanding. “When he speaks, I have to figure out what he means, and what his next move will be,” he said. “This is very difficult.”
That would probably please Trump, who prides himself on being unpredictable. Many commentators have drawn comparisons to Richard Nixon and his “madman theory” of diplomacy, in which Nixon sought to leave his adversaries with the impression that he possessed an unstable, dangerous state of mind.
Later, I asked Pak what he and other North Koreans thought of Trump.
“He might be irrational—or too smart. We don’t know,” he said. They suspected that Trump’s comment about “fire and fury” might be part of a subtle strategy. “Like the Chinese ‘Art of War,’ ” he said. “If he’s not driving toward a point, then what is he doing? That is our big question.”
For Pak and other analysts in North Korea, the more important question about the United States extends beyond Trump. “Is the American public ready for war?” he asked. “Does the Congress want a war? Does the American military want a war? Because, if they want a war, then we must prepare for that.”
We arrived at the Kobangsan Guest House, a small, three-story hotel on the outskirts of Pyongyang, surrounded by corn and rice fields. The place had an air of low-cost opulence—chandeliers, rhinestones, and pleather sofas. We were the only guests. The Foreign Ministry uses the hotel for “Americans and V.I.P.s,” Pak said. (In 2013, Eric Schmidt, the former C.E.O. of Google, was put up there.) In North Korea, no visitor is left unattended, and Pak had a room down the hall from mine. I paid a hundred and forty-one dollars a night—a month’s income for the average citizen. “From time immemorial, there is a tradition of giving foreigners the best service,” Pak explained. “The No. 1 thing is to protect them, unless they are spies or enemies.”
We had dinner that night with Ri Yong Pil, a Foreign Ministry official in his mid-fifties, who is the vice-president of the Institute for American Studies. Gregarious and confident, he served eight years in the Army, learned English, and became a diplomat. He raised a glass of Taedonggang beer and toasted our arrival. We were in a private hotel dining room that felt like a surgical theatre: a silent, scrubbed, white-walled room bathed in bright light. Two waitresses in black uniforms served each course: ginkgo soup, black-skin chicken, kimchi, river fish, and vanilla ice cream, along with glasses of beer, red wine, and soju. (The U.N. says that seventy-two per cent of North Koreans rely on government food rations, and the country is experiencing a historic drought. But in Pyongyang a foreign guest eats embarrassingly well.)
Ri made a series of points, waiting for me to write each one in my notebook:
“The United States is not the only country that can wage a preventive war.”
“Three million people have volunteered to join the war if necessary.”
“Historically, Korean people suffered because of weakness. That bitter lesson is kept in our hearts.”
“Strengthening our defensive military capacity is the only way to keep the peace.”
“We are small in terms of people and area, but in terms of dignity we are the most powerful in the world. We will die in order to protect that dignity and sovereignty.”
After several more toasts, Ri loosened his tie and shed his jacket. He had some questions. “In your system, what is the power of the President to launch a war?” he asked. “Does the Congress have the power to decide?”
A President can do a lot without Congress, I said. Ri asked about the nuclear codes: “I’ve heard the black bag is controlled by McMaster. Is it true?” (He was referring to H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser.)
No, the President can launch nukes largely on his own, I said. “What about in your country?”
His answer was similar. “Our Supreme Leader has absolute power to launch a war,” he said.
I turned in early. My room was furnished in the style of Versailles by way of Atlantic City—champagne-colored leather and gold-painted trim. The room was equipped with a TV, but, instead of North Korean programming, the only options were Asian satellite channels. There was no news to be found. I flipped past a Christian evangelist and a Singaporean cooking show, and drifted off to the sight of sumo wrestlers colliding.
Trump is the fourth U.S. President who has vowed to put an end to North Korea’s nuclear program. Bill Clinton signed a deal in which North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear development in exchange for oil and a civilian reactor, but neither side fulfilled its commitments. George W. Bush refused bilateral negotiations, then switched tacks and convened what are known as the Six-Party Talks. Obama first offered inducements, and later adopted a stonewalling policy called “strategic patience.” Under Trump, the U.S. has led the U.N. Security Council in its passage of the eighth round of sanctions against North Korea in eleven years. The Kims’ nuclear program is still going. “They have managed to play an abysmally bad hand for more than seventy years,” Evans Revere, a former head of Korean affairs at the State Department, told me.
U.S. intelligence has often underestimated the progress of North Korea’s weapons development. But now the basic facts, accumulated by American, European, and Chinese intelligence agencies, are clear. North Korea has between twenty and sixty usable nuclear warheads, and ICBMs capable of hitting targets as far away, perhaps, as Chicago. It has yet to marry those two programs in a single weapon, but American intelligence agencies estimate that it will achieve that within a year. The U.S. is in the process of upgrading its ability to shoot down an incoming missile. It reportedly tried to derail North Korea’s weapons development through cyber sabotage, but it only delayed the progress. A former U.S. official said, “You spend millions putting it in place and then you ask, ‘Did it work?’ And the answer comes back: Maybe.”
In recent talks, when Americans have asked whether any combination of economic and diplomatic benefits, or security guarantees, could induce Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons, the answer has been no. North Koreans invariably mention the former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. In 2003, when Qaddafi agreed to surrender his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, Bush promised others who might do the same that they would have an “open path to better relations with the United States.” Eight years later, the U.S. and NATO helped to overthrow Qaddafi, who was captured, humiliated, and killed by rebels. At the time, North Korea said that Qaddafi’s fall was “a grave lesson” that persuading other nations to give up weapons was “an invasion tactic.”
James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence, who visited Pyongyang in 2014, told me, “The North Koreans are not going to give up their nuclear weapons. It’s a non-starter.” The American national-security community is now nearly unanimous on this point, but the government cannot say so openly, because that would cede leverage in a future negotiation, and raise the risk that other countries will try to follow North Korea’s example. “Whether it’s pressuring, threatening, negotiating, or trying to leverage China, everybody’s tried all of that—and it’s not working,” Clapper said.
Inside the Trump Administration, there is disagreement about how to handle North Korea. Shortly before Steve Bannon, the President’s former chief strategist, was fired, in August, he told an interviewer, “There’s no military solution here, they got us.” But Mattis and McMaster argue that Kim Jong Un must be contained. Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in June, Mattis called North Korea “the most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security,” supplanting Russia as the No. 1 threat to the U.S. In an e-mail, McMaster told me, “Their provocations seem likely to increase—not decrease—over time. The North Koreans have also proliferated just about every capability they’ve ever produced, including chemical weapons and a nuclear reactor. Then there’s the matter of what other countries do—in the region and beyond—when they see that a rogue regime developed nukes and got away with it.”
Experts can’t say definitively why Kim wants nuclear weapons. Are they for self-defense, as North Korea claims, or will Kim use them to achieve the unfulfilled ambition of the Korean War—forcing reunification with South Korea? A senior Administration official told me that members of Trump’s national-security team are not convinced that Kim will stop at self-protection. “There are fewer and fewer disagreements about North Korea’s capabilities now, and so then, inevitably, the question of their intentions becomes critical,” he said. “Are they pursuing these weapons in order to maintain the status quo on the Peninsula, or are they seeking to fundamentally alter the status quo?” The official added, “Sometimes dictators are able to kid themselves that ‘Hey, once I’ve got that weapon, I’m invincible, and I have a free hand to launch conventional wars and subversion and assassination campaigns against my neighbors.’ ”
The White House could try to deter North Korea from using or selling its weapons—or it could start a preventive war. Deterrence relies, at bottom, on the assumption that an adversary is not suicidal, but this Administration suspects that Kim’s recklessness could trigger his own destruction. The official said, “Saddam Hussein was not suicidal, but he committed suicide.” In 2003, as the U.S. threatened to attack Iraq, Saddam was surrounded by sycophants and cut off from reliable information. He doubted that America would actually launch a full-scale attack, and, as a result, he miscalculated the odds of destroying himself and his regime.
A warm drizzle was falling on Pyongyang the morning after my arrival, as we left the Kobangsan Guest House to see the city. More than any other capital that has been marooned by politics—Havana or Rangoon or Caracas—Pyongyang presents a panorama from another time. Soviet-era Ladas and ancient city buses ply the streets, while passengers stick their heads out the windows in search of cool air. Buildings are adorned with Korean-language banners hailing the “Juche ideology,” the official state credo, which glorifies self-reliance and loyalty. On an embankment near a major intersection, workers in gray coveralls were installing an enormous red sign that praised the “immortal achievements of the esteemed Supreme Leader, comrade Kim Jong Un, who built the nuclear state of Juche, the leader in rocket power!”
Pyongyang is a city of simulated perfection, without litter or graffiti—or, for that matter, anyone in a wheelchair. Its population, of 2.9 million, has been chosen for political reliability and physical health. The city is surrounded by checkpoints that prevent ineligible citizens from entering.
For decades, there were few cars on the streets, but now frequent foreign visitors marvel at the growth in traffic. Pyongyang is the emptiest, quietest capital in Asia, but it is changing, slowly, driven by the legacy of famine. Between 1994 and 1998, a combination of mismanagement, droughts, and flooding paralyzed North Korean food production, killing up to three million people. Hundreds of thousands went to China in search of food and work, and many returned to their families having seen a better quality of life.
Since the famine, “the majority of today’s North Koreans have learned to lead an economic double life in order to make ends meet,” according to “North Korea Confidential,” a study of markets and daily life, by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson. North Koreans, outside their state-assigned jobs, sell homemade noodles in thriving markets; they drive private buses; they rent out apartments by the hour for courting couples. Government insiders import housewares, medicine, and luxury products from China, giving rise to an entrepreneurial élite known as donju—“masters of money.” Kim has allowed limited economic reforms, letting people accumulate profits, which has fuelled the growth of black markets, including in real estate. Officially, there is no private homeownership, but, in practice, people pay for better units. An ordinary one-bedroom apartment in Pyongyang costs three or four thousand dollars; the most luxurious offerings sell for hundreds of thousands.
The weak enforcement of sanctions, and continued demand from China and Russia, has allowed North Korea’s economy to grow with surprising speed in recent years. According to South Korea’s central bank, North Korea’s G.D.P. grew an estimated 3.9 per cent in 2016, the fastest pace since 1999. (South Korea’s, by comparison, grew 2.8 per cent.)
On the streets of Pyongyang, there are flashes of modernity, even style. Some women can be seen wearing stilettos and short skirts, though these can be no higher than two inches above the knee, according to Workers’ Party regulations. (Jeans are still practically taboo, because of their association with America.) Now and then, I saw people hunched over cell phones. Since 2013, Pyongyang has had 3G mobile service, but most people have access only to North Korea’s self-contained intranet, which allows them to send e-mail inside the country and to look at some Web sites. But many North Koreans have had some exposure to Chinese, American, and South Korean entertainment, smuggled over the border on SD cards that are small enough to be inserted into a phone. (Kim Jong Un, sensing the danger that information poses, has denounced foreign movies and music as “poisonous weeds.” In 2015, his government warned that people caught with illegal videos could face ten years of hard labor.)