Kristof visits North Korea and is alarmed

Nicholas Kristof has a column in today’s New York Times, “Inside North Korea, and feeling the drums of war,” based on a trip he just made to the DPRK. (The U.S. gave him and a few journalists special exemption from the new travel ban.) Kristof was especially concerned with the fate of college student Otto Warmbier, who visited the country on a tour, was accused of stealing a poster, and then, after being arrested on January 2, 2016 at Pyongyang airport, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. After 17 months in prison, he was returned to the U.S. on June 2 of this year in a comatose state, and died on June 19. He was 22.

North Korean officials say that Warmbier contracted botulism shortly after his arrest, and then fell into a coma after taking a sleeping pill. Unfortunately, his parents didn’t allow an autopsy, so we don’t know what killed him, but the fact is that even according to the DPRK he’d been comatose for about a year and a half before he was returned to the U.S. Yes, the DPRK is evil, but this plumbs the depths of depravity. If the DPRK didn’t kill him through mistreatment or torture, they certainly kept him away from his family. My own view is that they killed him, but that’s just a hypothesis.

Click on the video below to see the dissimulation of a senior ministry official of the DPRK, Choe Kang-il, who insists that America killed Warmbier as a propaganda move. Kang-il also makes a few disparaging comments about Trump, with which I can’t disagree, but the lies that pervade this regime are frightening. Millions of people live under an oppressive totalitarianism, starved, worked to death, and subject to endless propaganda and threats of death and imprisonment. Without doubt, North Korea is the most evil country on Earth, and there’s nothing we can do about it. I weep for its people who will never know a life of freedom, or experience a belly that is full.

 Kristof detected a distinct change from his previous visits to the DPRK, and not a good one:

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.

. . . On past trips (my last was in 2005), we journalists stayed at hotels in the capital and were free to walk around on our own, but this time the Foreign Ministry housed us at its own guarded Kobangsan Guest House east of the capital. At first I thought this was simply to restrict us, but increasingly I saw signs of something more interesting and menacing: The Foreign Ministry was also protecting us from hard-liners in the military or in the security services.

“Someone might hear you are from America,” and there could be trouble, one official explained.

When Trump said this week, at a dinner with military officials and their families, that “You guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm”, the first thing I thought of was North Korea (the second was Iran). But the DPRK is already a storm, and it seems more likely that Trump was just blowing words out of his nether parts. Still, Kristof is worried, and so am I:

“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is on the eve of the breakout of nuclear war,” Choe, the Foreign Ministry official, told me. “We can survive” such a war, he added, and he and other officials said that it was not the right time for talks with the U.S.

The North Koreans insist that the U.S. make the first move and drop its sanctions and “hostile attitude” — which won’t happen. And the U.S. is equally unrealistic in insisting that North Korea give up its entire nuclear program.

. . . What makes this moment so perilous is that North Koreans are steeped in the idea that they have repeatedly defeated the U.S. — and can do so again. Every single person we spoke to, from officials to students, voiced certainty that if war breaks out, America will end up in ashes and the Kim regime will emerge victorious.

I’m not worried about Kim Jong-un starting a war, though there’s the possibility that a misfired missile could trigger U.S. and South Korean military action. Kim Jon-un is not suicidal. I’m more worried that Trump will order a preemptive strike, which would be disastrous, resulting in the destruction of North Korea and its people, as well as much of South Korea. I’m confident that Trump’s military advisors would counsel against this, but of course Trump is Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. military and has the legal authority to order such a strike. All I can hope for is that the man has at least a soupçon of sense. I’m counting on that, as I don’t want to see a nuclear war in my lifetime, nor millions of innocent people killed. As Kristof says, “One recent study suggested that if North Korea detonated nuclear weapons over Tokyo and Seoul, deaths in those two cities alone could exceed two million.”

The best we can hope for is to tolerate a nuclear North Korea. It’s not pleasant but it beats the alternative. At any rate, this is nothing I haven’t said before. Read Kristof’s piece to see how deeply weird both the situation and the DPRK itself is, and to see his suggestion (talks) to defuse the crisis.


  1. busterggi
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Trump may preemptively attack NK or he may target Iran or Venezula but he will do at least one – he is that crazy.

  2. GBJames
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 10:49 am | Permalink


  3. Randy schenck
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I think it is time for congress to use the 25th Amendment and get this guy out. A group of professional have written a book which I ordered but they are already out of stock.

    But will he do something in Korea or will he continue to act stupid regarding Iran or both. Even Bob Corker, republican senator has said this guy is not stable and not up to the job. The last thing he has said is this – The white house has become an adult daycare center and somebody missed their shift.

  4. Malgorzata
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 10:57 am | Permalink


  5. Posted October 8, 2017 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    The DPRK has long faced an existential threat that led it to amass a huge army and develop nuclear weapons. Without such assets, it would have disappeared long ago. Now the sanctions are making it ever more difficult for it to maintain this military burden, increasing the existential threat. So it resorts to ever more bluster and belligerence. Who knows where this will lead.

    • Rita
      Posted October 8, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      I wonder if sanctions have ever worked? It seems to me that the upper echelons will always be able to get whatever they want, so sanctions end up depriving the average citizens. Maybe the idea is that we hope the deprivation will cause the people to finally rebel, but does that ever happen? Or is it more likely to increase hatred of the US?

      • Posted October 8, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        I think you are right. And the DPRK regime will do what it can to ensure that the US is blamed for their pain. Hence the campaign to whip up more hatred toward America.

      • Posted October 8, 2017 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

        I wonder if sanctions have ever worked?

        Apartheid South Africa.

        More than one South African has said to me that, if nothing else, the sporting sanctions helped to persuade the Afrikaans ruling classes that change was necessary.

        I can’t think of anywhere else.

  6. prinzler
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    There are faint rumblings in Congress that would prevent a President from using nuclear weapons in a first strike without some other authorization or approval. The reason why the nukes can be fired off by the President alone in a matter of a few minutes is to allow a response to an incoming attack, but giving the President that sole authority is not necessary for a first strike.

    This is from my vague memory of a report on NPR news this week.

    • Randy schenck
      Posted October 8, 2017 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      But is it not true that, if not for the current person in the position they would not even need to consider this? That tells us the answer lies elsewhere.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 9, 2017 at 3:49 am | Permalink

        I can’t help noticing the irony that we are all implicitly relying on the sanity of the military – whose job it is to make war – to restrain the unbalanced Orange One from starting one…


  7. Rich Sanderson
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I believe the term is “useful idiot”. Gullible or sinister Western journalists and enablers did the same in 1930s Germany and in the nascent USSR. They were exposed, eventually, and those defending North Korea will be exposed as well.

    BTW, you won’t be surprised to hear that the likes of Peter Ferguson (Humanisticus) and Dan Arel are among the crowd of useful idiots who enable North Korea via crass comparisons with the USA.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 8, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Really? The problem here is western journalism? If you abrogated the First Amendment tomorrow and silenced US journalists completely, what possible effect do you think this would have on the internal affairs of North Korea? All it would do is embolden Trump to act even more recklessly.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted October 8, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink


      • Rich Sanderson
        Posted October 8, 2017 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

        Who said anything about silencing Western journalists?

        Stop making stuff up.

  8. Randy Bessinger
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I feel more and more like I am back in elementary school. Nearing 71 now but back then, nuclear war was closer and closer and I wore dog tags to school.

    I just see more and more brinkmanship ending in either a cuba style blockade (or some eqivalent) leading to war or back channel negotiations racheting things down. Scary times (again).

  9. Steve Pollard
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Good article.

    Kristof comments: “One risk is that dictators come to believe their own propaganda”. Not just dictators.

  10. Randy schenck
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I do not see the situation in North Korea as that much different than it has been in the recent past. There has been high tension and the North has done some pretty crazy things like shooting at South Korean boats and shelling. Any trip you make to the DMZ is always tense with a kind of ominous feeling. I was last there about 1987, can’t remember the exact year.

    But what has the wick turned up now is a Don Trump in the white house and it makes most reasonable people suddenly think – well, things are certainly much worse up north. They are much worse right here.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted October 8, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      I agree. The problem is what has happened in the US – the election of Trump.

      The DPRK constantly manipulates public opinion, and an anti-US attitude is currently being cultivated. If Kim thought a different attitude was preferable, the posters etc would disappear overnight and something else would be prevalent.

      Since Kim Jong-un took over from his father, even communism is rarely even mentioned. The focus is much more on “Dear Leader” and the living god aspect of the regime.

      It is completely unrealistic to expect North Korea to give up its Nukes. From their pov, they need them, and their pov is actually quite reasonable.

      They believe that without them they will be overtaken by the US, and with someone like Trump in office it’s not an unlikely scenario. Gaddafi got rid of his nukes and look what happened to him. Hussein was discovered to be bluffing and he’s ignominiously dead too. Ukraine had a treaty to protect them when they gave their nukes to Russia, and they’ve lost the Crimea and are in a constant border war. They’re not getting the protection from the West they were promised.

      From Kim’s pov, he needs nukes to guarantee the survival of his regime and I’m not sure he’s wrong. The nukes are a deterrent. He has to threaten to use them for the deterrent effect to work. He has to have his people believing in him and believing the US are people they want to target.

      None of this is new. What’s new is there is a fu€king moron in the White House with no understanding of international diplomacy (as Rex Tillerson so succinctly put it). The reason the issue has become so big is Trump and his idiotic bluster. Kim is never going to be drawn into the international community of nations when he’s being constantly threatened. He has undone years of work of trying to get North Korea to trust me rest of the world and come out of their shell.

      The things that were working, like smuggling episodes of US TV shows in during the last 8 years? A lot of that work has been destroyed.

      • Randy schenck
        Posted October 8, 2017 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I think the common people in N. Korea are so far down and gone, there is little chance of any uprising from within. With million man armies and everyone so scared they will report their own relatives if they do anything, it just won’t happen. The changes in North Korea, I don’t think are possible without more from China. Until China sees a need for change, it just won’t happen. Trump needs to shut his stupid mouth and think about South Korea and Japan. Oh, I forgot, he can’t do that.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted October 8, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

          True. And you can see it from China’s pov too. If the US took over the Korean peninsula, which Trump would do given half a chance, China would have the US on a land border with them. They want to keep North Korea as a buffer state, and who can blame them?

          • Randall Schenck
            Posted October 8, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

            I know that is true but it seems like a hell of reason to keep millions in permanent suffering. Maybe Trump could build China a wall?? The really great wall of China.

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted October 8, 2017 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

              It’s not a good reason of course, but China’s record on human rights is not exactly stellar either. I doubt a lot of the leaders care as long as their geopolitical goals are met.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted October 9, 2017 at 3:47 am | Permalink

            Can’t see Russia being too thrilled about a US takeover either, seeing as how North Korea extends to within 60 miles of their major eastern naval base at Vladivostok.

            (A Chinese takeover, OTOH, would just add another 20 miles to the 2500 or so of border it already shares with China, so probably not a big deal).


  11. Pablo
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I thought Trump promised to stop getting our military in foreign conflicts? Why are we even in South Korea or Japan? They’re major economic powers that should spend some money on their militaries and take care of themselves.

    • Randy schenck
      Posted October 8, 2017 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      That is a long story going all the way back to WWII and Korea. But both South Korea and Japan have asked for assistance and protection from North Korea and China for all the years since. It was the nature of the U.S. to maintain it’s obligations in most things. Not all, but in these, so far the answer is yes. I might just add, it has been in the Japanese constitution, since WWII, they they will not increase their military very much. If you know their history, you will understand why.

      • pablo
        Posted October 8, 2017 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

        It’s been over half a century. I don’t think our obligations were in perpetuity, and Japanese culture is much different now. Time for these countries to stand on their own.

  12. Barry McGuire
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I, too, do not believe North Korea leaders would ever make a first strike as they know that their annihilation would follow. They repeatedly aver that they only want nuclear weapons to deter a US invasion. On this score I believe them.

    I do not believe they would ever have sought such weapons in the first place were it not for our bases, military personnel and missile installations in South Korea coupled with provocative exercises simulating invasions.

    Vietnam is not developing nuclear weaponry. But if the US had gone into neighboring Laos or Cambodia and set up there as it has in South Korea, I suspect Vietnam would be doing the same as North Korea.

  13. coldthinker
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    The scariest thing is the fact that the US doesn’t honor its international agreements. No treaty with the US can be trusted for more than four years, until the next president can turn everything upside down. Kim Jong-Un undoubtedly sees negotiations with any American government useless, and sad to say, he seems to be right in this estimate. North Korea does have the most evil government in the world, but this horrible nuclear threat would be their only way now even if they were a democratic paradise on Earth.

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    The real danger here is that Trump will paint himself into a corner with his faux tough-guy “fire and fury” threats, and his silly “rocket man” insults, to the point where he feels the only way to avoid looking weak would be to launch some type of preemptive military strike. Such a move would instantly put 75 million Korean lives, as well as countless lives in Japan and Guam and elsewhere around the globe (including, perhaps, in cities on the US mainland) in jeopardy.

    Would Trump risk it? Who the hell knows? Back a year ago, when it looked like he was going to lose the general election, he demonstrated a willingness to subvert 240 years of American democracy with his risible claims that the system was rigged and the election would fixed, merely to save face and not look like a loser. So we can’t put it past him.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 8, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      The other real danger here, of course, is that of a garden-variety cock-up — that one side or the other will misinterpret the intent of a plane flying near the DMZ, or a blip on a radar screen, or that some trigger-happy underling will fling a shell at the other side’s gunboat.

      In which event, we could be off to the races faster than you can say “Fail Safe.”

      • Randy schenck
        Posted October 8, 2017 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        Now that was another one of those good old black and white movies. Henry Fonda and many others in that one. Could two countries ever compromise to do that? Can’t get two people to agree on anything today.

  15. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I have a basic question.
    Although this time of saber-rattling means this won’t happen right now, when the situation is a bit better what about opening bilateral talks with NK, signing an armistice that officially ends the Korean war, and why not negotiate for a staged, bilateral withdrawal of forces from the border? Following that we could open diplomatic relations and start trade talks.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted October 8, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      I would suspect that “bilateral” is a bit of a problem because we really cannot meet just with N. Korea on the issues. South Korea must be there and very likely China must be as well. That does not mean we should not all meet and try something. Most of the agreements in the past, N. Korea has broken and some have given up but they should talk. There is no alternative. This clown we have for a president does not even have an Ambassador in South Korea. He does not have but half a department of state and tells his secretary of state…Oh, don’t even bother talking to the rocket man.

      • coldthinker
        Posted October 9, 2017 at 1:42 am | Permalink

        Do Americans really think anybody would be looking forward to negotiating anything with them? We all know all the US government can’t be trusted to honor any agreements they have signed, and American companies are similarly notorious all over the world. Whatever deal is negotiated, it might change after the next US election, after the other side has made heavy sacrifices to meet the terms. What entity would the other countries even deal with, since there is no trustworthy continuity in the American government? Here in Europe the US isn’t even seen as a real country any more, it’s rather some unclear plutocratic collection of antagonistic tribes cohabiting a geographical area. Nice people though, just don’t sign your name anywhere with them.

    • Posted October 8, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      NK might give up its nuclear program for that kind of deal, if the US could be trusted to stick to it. But why would it trust the US given that Trump is reneging on its deal with Iran despite Iran’s compliance? Trump’s zeal to scrap the Iran deal makes it harder to make any deals with our adversaries.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted October 8, 2017 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        On that issue I am not sure he is going to do that. I know they say he is but let’s see. Also, him just saying it does not mean much unless the congress then acts, like imposing sanctions or such things. Just about everyone but the idiot over in Israel and some republicans in congress knows this would be a really stupid thing to do. However, you are correct, if this deal is undone our ability to do anything is over.

        • coldthinker
          Posted October 9, 2017 at 1:48 am | Permalink

          You’re exactly right, but the trust is already broken. The terms of these international treaties demand heavy investments from both sides, and even a hint from the US president of not honoring the agreement destroys this willingness to make those investments. Any nuclear nation knows better that disarming their nukes, since the US might be expected to attack the next day the others lay down their arms.

  16. Craw
    Posted October 8, 2017 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    I have seen an interesting speculation: China will take over NK, with the tacit blessing of Trump.

    • Posted October 8, 2017 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

      Win for China and US. Loss for the people of Korea.

      • coldthinker
        Posted October 9, 2017 at 1:56 am | Permalink

        Actually this would be the best possible scenario in this situation, and in comparison with the Kim regime, a paradise for the North Korean people. I doubt even the South Koreans would feel as threatened by the Chinese as they are now by the Kim regime. But obviously the NK government wouldn’t be willing to become a mere province of China.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted October 9, 2017 at 3:40 am | Permalink

          I agree.

          This presumes, of course, that the Chinese would be willing to take over a basket-case of a country to add to their problems. But I guess they might regard it as the lesser of two evils (the other evil being, of course, Kim Jong-thing). But – the big but – how would China go about ‘taking over North Korea’? They surely wouldn’t relish the human and financial costs of an invasion (not to mention the risks of Kim’s missiles, whatever he might have, being shot at Peking) just to get the orange one off the hook.

          Of course Russia also has a (very short) border with North Korea, but I can’t see that a Chinese takeover would make much strategic difference to Russia. (An American takeover certainly might). It would of course give China access to the Sea of Japan very close to Russia’s major naval port of Vladivostok, but considering the many thousands of miles of Chinese-Russian land border already, that wouldn’t alter the geopolitical picture much.


  17. Posted October 9, 2017 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

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