The risk of nuclear war with North Korea

Evan Osnos writes: 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.” [Continue reading…]

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