Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters

The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman is just back from South Korea, where he was reporting on the latest diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea. You can read his latest articles here, but for The Masthead, we asked him to take us deeper. In today’s issue, Uri will walk us through his trip with a series of photographs. They reveal a country eager for peace, but deeply unsure of what comes next. Then we’ll highlight a few lesser-known characters behind the drama.

—Caroline Kitchener

Dispatches from South Korea

As told to Caroline Kitchener by Uri Friedman

Jayine Chung

This is Jung Gwang-Il, a defector who escaped from North Korea after his release from a political prison camp there. He met with President Trump in the Oval Office in February. He now runs an organization called No Chain, which sends USB drives and other informational materials into North Korea. A lot of it is K-Pop or South Korean soap operas, not necessarily political stuff. He thinks the best way to address the rift with North Korea is to open people’s eyes to the wider world, which might lead to popular revolution.

I wanted to get his sense of the negotiations going on with North Korea, in particular whether he felt betrayed by Donald Trump. (In February, Trump was taking a much harder line on North Korea than he is now.) Jung said he didn’t feel betrayed. But when I asked him if a peace deal and unification can really happen, he, in a world-weary way, pulled out his phone, and started playing this audio recording from 2008. It was a North Korean official speaking to colleagues, after the previous effort to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program failed. This official was talking about how the U.S. is our enemy, talking about going to war with America, how America can’t be trusted.

Jung’s point was that North Korean leaders don’t change. They are antagonistic to America, they are never going to give up their nuclear weapons. He said South Korea was getting too festive, talking about unification and peace. While he supports those things in theory, he told me there’s a Korean saying that goes something like, “When you have big expectations, you’re liable to have big disappointments.” We need to brace for that.

Uri Friedman

This sign, across from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, is calling for the U.S. and South Korea to stop their joint military exercises. Last week, North Korea cancelled planned talks with South Korea because the U.S. and South Korea were conducting military exercises that the North said violated the spirit of reconciliation we’ve been seeing recently.

People watch over this sign 24 hours a day. One person I talked to, who was 25, told me she was affiliated with the People’s Democracy Party, a left-wing political party started in 2016. It calls for a peace treaty between North and South Korea and is opposed to U.S. forces in South Korea. The woman I spoke with saw the United States, and President Trump in particular, as a war-monger. (He is pictured here, superimposed on Hitler’s body). She said Kim Jong Un is developing nuclear weapons because he feels threatened by the United States.

There is still a lot of support for a U.S.-South Korean alliance. But if there is a peace treaty with North Korea, people are wondering, do we still need U.S. forces in South Korea? It’s difficult to broach the subject because it’s so sensitive.  

Uri Friedman

These are Pyongyang Noodles. It’s a cold, buckwheat noodle dish—it tastes kind of earthy, kind of nutty. When Kim Jong Un had his summit with Moon Jae In, the South Korean president, Kim brought Pyongyang Noodles. He said, “I hope you will enjoy our naengmyeon brought from afar ... oh, maybe I shouldn't say 'afar’?” The noodles became a craze in South Korea.

As one person told me, the noodle craze was about something bigger. Young people, who were participating because the phenomenon was driven by social media, generally don’t identify much with North Korea. They have no memory of the Korean War, and, as a result, they have a view of North Korea’s leaders as threatening, demonic. The noodles speak to a moment when many people were like, “Oh, there actually is a lot that unites us.”

Uri Friedman

This was the TV on the bus I took from the airport. It was emblematic of how South Korea-North Korea diplomacy was everywhere, all the time. On my plane ride to Seoul, I watched a Korean evening news broadcast. The first seven stories were all about this flurry of diplomacy. In the summer and fall, South Koreans were really concerned about impending conflict with the North. But one thing to keep in mind is that, while the direct threat of nuclear weapons from North Korea is this sudden, new thing for Americans—North Korea first tested intercontinental ballistic missiles this summer—South Korea has lived with the threat from North Korea for 65 years. North Korea has had conventional and nuclear weapons that could target Seoul for years.

Uri Friedman

You often hear that North Korean artillery could target Seoul, and that’s one of the reasons military conflict on the peninsula would be so volatile. The main shelters people in Seoul would go to in an artillery barrage are subway stations. They are underground and very elaborate—you have to walk several minutes just to reach the tracks.

You see emergency equipment boxes everywhere, like the ones behind the people sitting on the bench. They have gas masks in them and bottles of water—they are pretty bare-bones. In the case of an attack, people generally know to go to the subway stations. But whether there are enough provisions to help people in the case of an emergency—that is a big question.

Uri Friedman

I went on a media tour of the Joint Security Area in the DMZ. It took me under an hour to get to the DMZ from Seoul. You leave Seoul, go on a highway, and see signs that say “Pyongyang”—which is kind of strange, because you can’t actually get to Pyongyang from the highway. When you get closer to the DMZ, you just see a lot of fields and rice patties, and military checkpoints and barbed wire. These blue houses are called T1, T2, and T3. They serve as conference rooms for when North and South Korea meet. In the middle of T2 is a microphone wire—one half of that wire is technically North Korea and the other half is South Korea.

Even though I was there right after the North-South summit, it felt as tense as usual. The main difference was that it was a lot quieter. There used to be a speaker that played North Korean opera, and official government discourses, in a North Korean village just north of the border, but they turned that off around the time of the summit.

Who’s Behind the Scenes in the North Korea Negotiations?

By Caroline Kitchener

We’ve heard a lot about the leaders of North Korea, South Korea, and the United States in the run-up to the Trump-Kim talks. Yet other lesser-known individuals will have a hand in how the talks will play out (or, perhaps, how they won’t). I asked Uri who else we should be paying attention to.

  1. Matt Pottinger, senior director for Asian Affairs, National Security Council (United States). Now one of the architects of U.S. policy on North Korea, Pottinger originally had a career as a journalist, living in Beijing for seven years as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. After he was arrested by the Chinese government for writing about corruption, he started to consider alternative careers. “I was standing over a toilet," Pottinger told ABC, "with a bunch of Chinese policemen standing around me shredding my notebook, page by page, and flushing it down.” Eventually, he decided to join the Marines, and, after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was hired to the NSC in 2017. Pottinger tends to operate behind the scenes, so his role isn't always clear. But when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea in early May, Pottinger was one of a handful of senior officials who went along.

  2. Chung In Moon, senior advisor to President Moon Jae In (South Korea). Moon is also a lifelong academic, affiliated with Yonsei University in South Korea. (He is not related to the president.) Moon is often outspoken about his personal views, which at times “lands him in controversy,” said Uri. For years, said Uri, “he’s been thinking deeply about how to engage North Korea, how to achieve peace and eventually unification on the Korean peninsula, and what South Korea’s role in the world should be if North Korea ceases to be an enemy.” He’s raised questions about how a better relationship with North Korea would change his country’s relationship with the U.S, which is highly controversial in South Korea. In a recent interview for The Atlantic, Moon voiced doubts about the future of the U.S.-Korea alliance, a startling statement for someone who is closely advising the president on negotiations with North Korea and the United States.

  3. Ri Yong-ho, minister of foreign affairs (North Korea). A lifelong diplomat, Ri represented North Korea in the previous round of talks in the mid-2000s. After Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” last year, Ri traveled to the United Nations in New York, and spoke, passionately, on behalf of Kim. He claimed it was now “inevitable” that North Korea would strike the U.S., and that Trump was on a “suicide mission,” prompting media outlets to name Ri “the international face of the North Korean regime.”

Today’s Wrap Up

  • Today’s Question: If Trump were to bring an American dish to Kim Jong Un as a sign of peace, what might it be?

  • What’s Coming: On Wednesday, Abdallah Fayyad talks with Wajahat Ali about his recent reporting in the West Bank.

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