North Korea has for decades been testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in defiance of international demands to stop. North Korea’s authoritarian leader, Kim Jong-un, has picked up the pace this year, testing a record number of missiles so far. The North fired 12 in the past two weeks alone, including two early today. Last week, one flew over Japan, the first such launch since 2017, setting off alarms and panicking residents.
I called Choe Sang-Hun, The Times’s bureau chief in Seoul, who also covers the North, to learn more.
Ian: Why is Kim escalating his country’s weapons program now?
Sang-Hun: North Korea is protesting recent military exercises by South Korea, Japan and the U.S. But more frequent weapons tests are also part of Kim’s long-term goal. He wants to expand his country’s nuclear and missile capabilities for self-defense. He may also want to use them as a bargaining chip to get diplomatic and economic concessions from the U.S. and its allies. Under American-led U.N. resolutions, North Korea has been banned since 2017 from exporting its major commodities — including coal, iron ore, seafood and textiles — which hurts its economy.
North Korea is frustrated, isolated and uncertain about its future. Kim sat down with President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019 and tried to use North Korea’s nuclear capabilities as leverage to get the U.S. to lift or ease the sanctions. It didn’t work. So Kim has tried to force the Americans back to the negotiating table. To do that, he has to test weapons, ratcheting up the threat to the U.S. and its allies.
That’s a major reason for North Korea to build up its capabilities now; it has to have a deep arsenal to be able to negotiate some of it away. North Korea wants recognition as a nuclear power, but some analysts think it will eventually offer to arm itself only with short-range nuclear weapons, which can still serve as a deterrent, but give up its longer-range missile capabilities in exchange for economic concessions from Washington.
How do people in South Korea live with the nuclear threat from North Korea?
For South Korea, missile tests have become routine. The government condemns them as provocations, and North Korea policy is a perpetual political issue, but ordinary people don’t really pay attention to them. They’re more concerned about inflation and domestic political scandals. South Koreans like to say that when North Korea does something provocative, their relatives in the U.S. — who read American media — are more concerned than they are.
Tensions are not as high as in 2017, when Kim and Trump were exchanging insults and threats of nuclear holocaust. There was tangible fear then, even in South Korea.
How do North Koreans regard the tests?
While we don’t have independent journalists doing interviews in North Korea, we do know that state propaganda and totalitarian control work there. My only visit to Pyongyang was in 2005, shortly after I joined The Times. I remember seeing what are called the Arirang Mass Games. It’s a totalitarian spectacle. North Korea has one of the largest stadiums in the world, and it was crammed with thousands of young children who had trained for months to perform while holding colored signs, moving like robots in such perfect synchronization that they actually created moving pictures that flashed communist slogans. They were like human pixels.
I witnessed how ordinary people’s lives are affected by propaganda. It’s clear that many North Koreans consider the country’s nuclear weapons a matter of national pride, a symbol of dignity, independence and empowerment. The government tells its people that the U.S. wants to invade North Korea and that nuclear weapons will protect them from the evil, imperialist Americans and their lackeys in South Korea and Japan.
North Korea likes to compare itself to a porcupine bristling with needles, deterring the American tiger. That’s how it justifies spending resources on developing and testing weapons. You can go hungry, but you can’t give up your pride is a common theme in North Korean propaganda.
You’ve reported on North Korea for decades. How do you cover such a closed society?
I talk to analysts in South Korea and to North Korean defectors. But because it’s difficult to travel internally, defectors from one part of the country often don’t know what’s happening elsewhere.
For me, the best way to understand North Korea’s government is to follow its state media. You learn to screen out the propaganda and see what the government is really saying, and develop an understanding of the ideological, historical and diplomatic context of its actions. When the outside world began noticing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program decades ago, there were many theories about its motivations. If you look back on official statements, state media articles and speeches by leaders, it’s clear that it’s been the government’s aim to build nuclear weapons all along.
More about Sang-Hun: He grew up in a village in southeastern South Korea and went to graduate school in Seoul. He didn’t plan to become a journalist but followed a friend into the field and landed a job at the English-language Korea Herald. He joined The Times after 11 years with The Associated Press.
Related: The U.S. penalized businessmen and companies it said had helped North Korea evade sanctions. It’s bracing for Kim to conduct another nuclear test.
On the cover: Doctors and midwives in blue states are working to get abortion pills into red states, setting up a legal clash.
Recommendation: Try a bidet.
Screenland: Viral videos of rats, roaches and grime? This is how New York flatters itself.
Eat: Find patience and gentleness in a simmering pot of Jamaican stew peas.
Read the full issue.
THE WEEK AHEAD
What to Watch For
The annual International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group meetings start tomorrow in Washington.
Tomorrow is Columbus Day, a federal holiday in the U.S. Many states also recognize Indigenous People’s Day.
Harvey Weinstein’s second trial, in which he faces 11 charges related to rape and sexual assault, is set to begin tomorrow in Los Angeles.
Japan will lift Covid travel restrictions for foreign tourists on Tuesday.
On Thursday, Social Security will announce the largest inflation adjustment to benefits in four decades.
The government will release new inflation numbers on Thursday.
Italy’s new Parliament will meet Thursday for the first time since the election of a hard-right coalition.
The Green Bay Packers play the New York Giants in London today in the Packers’ first international game.