Evan Osnos discusses North Korea at The Fletcher School

Evan Osnos, a staff writer at the New Yorker, gave an Institute for Global Leadership-sponsored lecture at the ASEAN Auditorium on Nov. 13 regarding U.S. relations with North Korea. Osnos has visited North Korea twice, most recently this past August. On his more recent trip, he was able to interview several North Korean government officials. He spoke about his own travel experiences and his beliefs on how future contact between North Korea and the United States will unfold.

Osnos sought to answer three central questions in his lecture: how North Korea perceives the current crisis between North Korea and the United States, what is most important to understand about North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and how Americans should perceive the various options facing the country.

Osnos noted that, while interviewing North Korean government officials, he detected an emphasis on survival. Osnos said that many officials within the regime recognize that North Korea has faced extreme hardship before, such as famine and war and subsequently believe that if faced with nuclear war, the country would again prevail. He also noticed that many officials mistakenly believed that in the United States, public opinion often translates directly into policy and would be enough to prevent a war.

Osnos briefly distinguished himself from other journalists who have covered the regime. While many people seek to distance themselves from the government on visits and instead interview ordinary citizens, Osnos’ primary purpose on his recent visit was to speak with as many government officials as possible, he said. 

Osnos went into detail regarding his past visit.

“I was followed [by a minder] almost everywhere I went… This extended from the time I left my hotel room in the morning until I went to bed each night,” Osnos said. “Minder” in this case means a government-appointed official to follow a foreigner visiting North Korea. 

Osnos mentioned that his request to visit North Korea and his contact with the country’s government was conducted by what he deemed “going in the front door.” He reached out to the government through the New York Channel and was open about his desire to visit the country for journalistic purposes; this, Osnos said, made him and his family feel much safer and more comfortable about the trip.

Osnos also addressed the widely held American perception that the Chinese government has an ability to resolve the nuclear crisis between the United States and North Korea. According to Osnos, China has much less of an ability to “turn off the tap” than most believe.

“There is a chill in this relationship [between China and North Korea] that is profound,” Osnos said.

The primary purpose of his research has been to ultimately learn more about North Korea’s intentions and desires regarding its nuclear arsenal, Osnos said.

“I was struck by the fact that we have a terrific community of scholars, analysts and specialists on North Korea in the United States, and even they will say that there is a huge amount that we don’t know about North Korea today,” Osnos told the Daily in an interview. “For that reason, we should be very careful before we undertake military options that we can’t undo.”

In his lecture, Osnos again spoke to the limited information regarding North Korea.

“We are often overstating what we really understand about a very complicated situation,” Osnos said.

Osnos further said that nuclear deterrence, as seen in how the United States handled the possibility of nuclear warfare during the Cold War, was the direction in which both countries are moving.

Osnos told the Daily in an interview that life in North Korea is in some ways, surprisingly normal.

“It’s easy for us to get a cartoon impression of North Korea… When you go, you discover that there are people who are living their lives on a daily basis as fully formed, three-dimensional people,” he said. “They have husbands and wives and kids and grandparents, and they’ve got annoyances, and they’ve got leaky roofs, and they’ve got loans they can’t pay back, and they’ve got all of these problems that are in some ways kind of typical.”

Osnos added that understanding these people as human beings is an advantage in improving diplomatic relations.

Osnos emphasized the importance of remaining informed on relations between the United States and North Korea in his interview with the Daily.

“As citizens, as students, as voters, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to be as educated as we can be about what’s actually happening in North Korea,” Osnos said.