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Opinion: Inside N. Korea, and feeling the drums of war

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 U.S. 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 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.

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 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.

On past trips, 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.

Hard-liners seem to have gained greater power this year, especially after Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea.

I have felt more constraint than on past visits to North Korea, and considerably more tension. Before, I had been able to see senior generals, but this time, the military flatly refused to consider my interview requests.

A basic problem is that hard-liners seem ascendant in both Washington and Pyongyang.

In Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is advocating a diplomatic resolution to conflict with North Korea — but Trump undercut him on Twitter last Sunday and said Tillerson was “wasting his time.” Trump’s policy toward North Korea is founded on false assumptions that the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, will give up his nuclear weapons, that China can save the day and that military options are real.

Confucian-style reverence is directed to Kim Jong Un, 33, the scion of the dynasty. State media are worshipful about his “brilliant intelligence, military acumen, matchless courage and outstanding art of command,” as one publication put it.

A decent option is to settle into long-term mutual deterrence. But that would be risky, not least because we have a U.S. president and a North Korean leader who both seem impetuous, overconfident and temperamentally inclined to escalate any dispute.

War is preventable, but I’m not sure it will be prevented.

Writes for The New York Times.

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