The threat of war between the United States and North Korea, exacerbated by intensifying rhetoric between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, is palpable on the streets of Pyongyang.
That is the case according to Nicholas Kristof, a veteran New York Times columnist who recently visited North Korea’s capital city after spending almost five years to get a visa.
Kristof had previously visited North Korea in 1989 and 2005, but noticed that this time was different. In an episode of The New York Times Daily podcast on Thursday, he said he saw military parades line the streets almost every day past images of missiles striking the US Capitol.
“There was a menace in the air. There were these billboards showing the destruction of the US. There was much more rhetoric about the US as the enemy,” Kristof told host Michael Barbaro. “I left feeling that there is a real risk of a war that would be just catastrophic and that we may be headed for miscalculations on both sides that make a war not likely, but a significant possibility.”
Kristof spoke with numerous North Koreans and toured an elaborate new Korean War museum along one of the sprawling, Communist-style boulevards in Pyongyang. The museum’s message was straightforward enough, he wrote, accusing Americans of using biological weapons in warfare and committing atrocities worse than Hitler did.
During a rare sit-down interview with one of North Korea’s top officials, Kristof pressed senior Foreign Ministry official Choe Kang-il about Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who died shortly after being freed from North Korean custody earlier this year. Choe showed no signs of remorse.
“The U.S. administration, or some people with a certain intention, let him die,” Choe said. “This must be intended to foster and spread anti-Communist hatred within America.”
Choe also called Trump “a thug” and “a pathetic man with a big mouth.” He has been increasingly hinting at military involvement in North Korea over the last few weeks.
On Saturday, Trump tweeted that “Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years…but only one thing will work!”
This kind of escalating rhetoric has had a profound effect on the ground.
“North Korea has always been big on propaganda and propaganda scenes, but the level of hostility to the US and the degree to which this has emerged as a theme is different from the way it was before,” Kristof said on The Daily. “There’s much more menace in the air.”