It’s hard to keep up with the rapid-fire news coming from North Korea these days.
Tensions have escalated for months amid North Korean missile tests – including the test of a hydrogen bomb that was far stronger than the weapon dropped on Hiroshima – and a war of words between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, the North’s leader.
The big fear now is that Pyongyang could develop a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach the United States.
We recently asked what you want to know about North Korea and received hundreds of questions on Facebook. I chose seven that best represented the majority of interests, and sat down with Fareed Zakaria, a foreign affairs expert and host of CNN’s “GPS,” Sundays at 1 pm ET, to get answers.
Pyongyang, Arirang Festival
Question: “Do you really think North Korea will attack?” Rahul Sharma, Oregon
Fareed Zakaria: Rahul, that’s the biggest question, which is what is the intention here? My own view is that the North Koreans are trying to establish they are a serious nuclear power. There are not just a couple of bombs in the basement, but real bombs with real missiles with delivery systems and the capacity to attack. Which is all meant to send a signal – don’t mess with us. I think it is ultimately about deterrence and saying don’t try a regime change. The United States has essentially said that we want to topple this regime. For a long time, President George W. Bush made North Korea one of the axis of evil, so they do feel some real sense of being isolated and vulnerable. But, you have to say, Kim Jong Un is acting more aggressively and in a more provocative way than his predecessors, his father and grandfather did, particularly with the Chinese and that’s what leaves people a little bit puzzled. Why is he so provocative with the one treaty ally they have in the world?
Traditional North Korean dress with Kim Il Sung pin
Q: “If the North Korean regime were to fall, do South Koreans even want to unite the Korean Peninsula? Or would they rather let North Koreans fend for themselves?” – Josh Cambell, Washington
FZ: Josh, it’s a really good question. For a long time, the South Koreans have believed they wanted the eventual unification of the Koreas, as do the people in the North. That’s the established official position that both sides have always had. I think South Koreans are increasingly very wary of that prospect because if you compare North Korea and South Korea to East Germany and West Germany, North Korea is much poorer and much bigger proportionally than East Germany was. It took West Germany, one of the richest countries in the world, two decades to integrate East Germany. It cost them 5% of GDP every year for two decades and it’s still not properly integrated. Integrating North Korea would be a monumental cost for the South Koreans, so they are having real second thoughts.
Red Guard cadet in Pyongyang
Q: “What options do we have left in dealing with North Korea? Better/more defensive weapons, increased pressure by China, talks with North Korea or business as usual?” – Craig Burzain, California
FZ: It’s a very difficult question. There is no simple answer but I think all the things you outlined are exactly the elements we have to work on. There is only one government that has serious influence with North Korea and that is China. It has a lot less than it used to for a variety of reasons, partly the Chinese have gotten less interested in North Korea and support it less. The North Koreans see that and are as a result more isolated and therefore more invulnerable to Chinese pressure but possibly negotiations at some point could be useful. I tend to think the main card here is the Chinese, because without the Chinese you can’t do anything. One thing is for certain, if the Chinese are opposed to what the United States decides its policy is, there is really no serious option and no serious hope of any resolution.
Kim Jong Un sculpture in the main entrance of Korean War Museum in Pyongyang
Q: “What are some of the most dire consequences if we somehow manage to destabilize the regime?” Eric Seaenz, Texas
FZ: Very good question Eric. The most specific real risk I think that we face is if the regime feels threatened. If the United States were to attack, it will almost certainly respond but probably not using its nuclear weapons. North Korea has thousands — literally thousands — of rockets aimed at Seoul, where about 15 million, and maybe more, people live. This is within easy range of North Korean artillery and rockets and they would, in a sense, release a rain of fire on Seoul. South Koreans would then of course be forced to attack, and you would have one of the worst conventional battles that we’ve seen in human history. Estimates I’ve seen certainly go over 1 million people that would be dead or wounded in a battle like this. So you’d be looking at something that would be pretty grim and scary, but also has potential to escalate because the North has nuclear weapons and the South because of its alliance with the United States has the capacity to call in, potentially nuclear weapons if the United States agreed. So not only are you going to watch a conventional battle, the kind of which we haven’t seen since WWII, you’re also likely to see something possibly escalate. So, all in all a very bad scenario.
Avenue leading to Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, Pyongyang
Q: “Do you think Kim Jong Un believes his own propaganda?” – Christopher Cohen – New York
FZ: In a word, no. I think this is a guy who went to school in Switzerland at some fancy prep school, so I think he knows about the world. I think this is a ruthless, brutal, corrupt system that is simply trying to stay in power. There is nobody in North Korea that believes in whatever it is that their ideology is, and they don’t even really know what their ideology is at this point. It’s a weird mixture of communism and kind of family worship of the Kim family.
Pyongyang, two local ladies visiting Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery
Q: “My understanding is that the working people are nearly starving. How much longer can they hold out and put up with this? And are they educated and informed enough to know what is going on in the world and where they fit in?” – Ric Aguilar, North Carolina
FZ: Ric, it’s a great question because it’s one of the great puzzles about North Korea. They live on almost a near subsistence level, one of the poorest countries in the world right next to one of the richest countries in the world: South Korea, which has had one of the most amazing economic rises from poverty in the last 30 years, and I don’t think the average North Korean knows much about the outside world. They don’t know much about what life is like and information is very tightly controlled. I don’t know if the stories are still true but it used to be that if you went to a North Korean family’s home there was a radio in every household and it was always turned on, and it was a crime to turn off the radio. It was the broadcast system that the regime used, and so all you heard all day was regime propaganda, and you couldn’t turn it off. It was something straight out of Orwell’s 1984.
Entrance plaza to the Korean War Museum
Q: “What is the likelihood of North Korea selling nuclear weapons or technologies to others? Is this a threat that they might use as a bargaining chip?” Ben Dehner, Iowa
A: Ben, it’s a really good question because they did it in the past. We know that the North Koreans certainly have engaged in the buying of nuclear technology and it appears to have come from Pakistan and maybe some other places. Would they possibly sell it? Yes, it’s certainly possible. The danger is human beings are human beings. I don’t know if the Pakistani government intended to sell its secrets, but we do know there were certain Pakistani scientists and some military people who might have individually profited and done it. So the systems can leak and I wouldn’t want to underestimate the fact that there is a danger. But so far I have not seen much evidence of the North Korean government going around offering up its nuclear technology or its nuclear weaponry in any way on an open black market.
This story has been updated.
Photography by Philippe Chancel