- North Koreans are trained by propaganda and military service not to fear incredible hardships like nuclear war.
- North Korean officials say their country could destroy the US, but they would survive because Pyongyang has many bunkers and shelters.
- US citizens view their lives and comfort much more dearly, but the US’s nuclear superiority limits North Korea’s advantage to psychology only.
When the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos went to North Korea, the “most telling moment” for him came when his minder, Pak Sung Il, a father of two, told him that “nuclear war with the United States would be survivable.”
Asked why North Korea would entertain the idea of nuclear war with the US if it would totally wipe out their country, Osnos’ minder gave a chilling answer.
“We’ve been through it twice before” he said of national devastation, referring to the Korean War and the “Arduous March,” or the famine of the 1990s that killed up to 3.5 million.
“We can do it a third time,” he said.
“A few thousand would survive,” Pak said. “And the military would say, ‘Who cares? As long as the United States is destroyed, then we are all starting from the same line again … A lot of people would die. But not everyone would die.”
Nicholas Kristof wrote of his trip to North Korea in The New York Times and reported a “ubiquitous assumption that North Korea could not only survive a nuclear conflict, but also win it.”
“If we have to go to war, we won’t hesitate to totally destroy the United States,” a teacher at an amusement park told Kristof.
But when Western journalists travel to North Korea, they only see and hear state-approved narratives. While officials and official propaganda may unanimously state that North Koreans think they can destroy the US and survive the conflict, regular citizens may not feel the same way.
“This is a government script that everybody studies and repeats,” Kristof told Business Insider of North Koreans’ attitude toward nuclear war. But “people often buy the government propaganda especially if they are in Pyongyang,” said Kristof.
Average North Koreans may or may not believe the official propaganda that they could destroy the US, but their lives revolve around politics and ideology in a way to which the US could never compare.
In Pyongyang, all 16 metro stops are buried deep underground and have been designed to double as bomb shelters. Much of Pyongyang’s infrastructure doubles as bomb shelters, as the memory of the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 — when more bombs were dropped in Korea than in the entirety of World War II — looms large.
The last time the US was attacked by a foreign country was Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The US hasn’t lived in fear of nuclear annihilation since the close of the Cold War in the early 1990s.
The vast majority of US citizens never serve in the military, and many do not even know anyone who has. North Korea has mandatory military service for all men and women.
Even if average North Koreans aren’t as fearless in the face of nuclear exchanges as their top officials are, they have a built-in cultural and psychological advantage in facing down such a conflict.
But the advantage is entirely limited to perspective.
North Korea is still trying to produce a single, credible nuclear missile that can reach the US, and the US has enough nuclear weapons to completely destroy North Korea, China, and Russia in about a half hour.