“The Worst Problem in the World”

An interview with Mark Bowden on North Korea

Kim Jong-un inspects a ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket at an undisclosed location, on May 14, in a photo from the Korean Central News Agency.

AFP/Getty Images

Before President Obama left office, he reportedly told his successor that North Korea would be the most dangerous problem faced by the United States over the ensuing years. The past several months have done nothing to dispel that judgment. And on Monday, the family of Otto Warmbier, who had been held in North Korea for more than a year before being released last week, announced his death. In a new cover story for the Atlantic, the veteran journalist Mark Bowden makes the case that while the United States has several options for how to confront North Korea, the only truly feasible one is acceptance of the country’s missile and nuclear programs.

I recently spoke by phone with Bowden, who is also the author of Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, which is out this month. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what the military thinks of President Trump, why Americans see force as a cure-all, and the problem of overstating Kim Jong-un’s irrationality.

Isaac Chotiner: What is the appropriate response to Warmbier’s death?

Mark Bowden: I think that you would have to ask someone more familiar with what specific levers exist to apply pressure to North Korea. I presume that means China in some capacity. Clearly this is an outrage, and the United States should register its anger over what happened. But since there are no diplomatic ties, the usual avenues to do that aren’t there. I don’t think any kind of military response is called for, but to whatever extent we can express our umbrage, we ought to.

Are you saying that the lack of diplomatic relations somewhat paradoxically makes it harder to punish them?

Oh sure. North Korea is a completely outlaw regime and has been for years. This is just the latest in a long series of outrages that they’ve committed. This is the worst problem in the world, and it is so partly because we lack any real ability to apply pressure or leverage that doesn’t potentially provoke a far greater problem.

What about North Korea did you find most surprising while writing this story?

The sheer range of potential military responses available to North Korea surprised me. They have thousands of artillery emplacements just north of the DMZ [the demilitarized zone] that are capable of leveling Seoul within hours. We are not talking about nuclear or chemical or biological weapons. We are talking about very conventional military capabilities. I had no idea it was that extensive. And then the sheer range of weapons in their arsenal—from nuclear to chemical to biological—is really frightening.

Is there a gap between what experts think about how rational the regime is, and what most people think?

Yes. I think that the standard take on Kim Jong-un is that he is crazy and a madman, and those who really study North Korea and watch him closely do not share that opinion. Because he is the person who North Korea would invent to be the leader. He is very predictable in that regard. If you understand the regime’s ideology and its priorities, Kim Jong-un is a very predictable character to emerge out of that system. Since he has become the dear leader, he has proceeded with very logical and ruthless authority to consolidate his power and rid himself of critics and potential threats to his regime. I think he behaves in a way that is, although horrible, entirely predictable.

Are people in the Trump administration thinking about this problem in a different way than previous administrations did?

So far I don’t get any indication that anyone other than Trump is thinking about it differently. And even his tweets, which say things like “this will not happen,” are really not too far afield from what has been American policy for several administrations. But the sad fact is that whatever American policy has been, it has been ineffective in preventing North Korea from making progress toward building an ICBM with a nuke.

And how do you think Trump himself is thinking about it differently?

I would hope people around him are educating him in the harsh realities of dealing with North Korea. I think it is very natural of him—as it is for most Americans—to feel that, gee, the United States should be able to do something to stop North Korea. We are this enormously capable and powerful military. Why wouldn’t we? And the answer is very stark. North Korea has very cunningly positioned itself to have the capability to wreak unthinkable havoc on that peninsula and region, and any military action by the United States risks triggering that response, which I would hope would be unacceptable. I would hope Trump’s natural instincts, which again I don’t fault him for … although I do fault him for being president of the United States and not having a better grasp of reality …

Yeah, that’s a problem.

Yeah. I would think there are basic requisites for the office that he fails to live up to, but this is just, probably the most serious example of where his limitations are really frightening. I think it is far and away the worst problem in the world. We talk about fearing terrorist attacks that kill a few hundred people at a time, and as horrible as that is—and I don’t want to minimize it—we are talking about a potential exchange of weapons that could kill millions of people. Millions. It is on a scale so far beyond any of the things that preoccupy us.

You’ve mentioned Americans having trouble recognizing that there are problems without easy military solutions. How did the research on your book make you think about this idea?

It reinforced the idea for me of how limited military force is as a tool for dealing with the world. Vietnam is a classic example of political theorists in Washington projecting their ideas of how the world works on the actual world. The idea that the conflict in Vietnam was an example of monolithic communism spreading its tentacles in another part of the globe worked well as a cartoon but didn’t work well when you knew the history and culture of Vietnam. And when you read David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, you see how area experts—people who actually understood that region and spoke languages from Southeast Asia, and had lived in Vietnam—were systematically excluded from the corridors of power and replaced by people who had management theories and political philosophy that were en vogue, that led us into Vietnam, which I think was one of the worst foreign policy disasters in American history. The play keeps coming back around and around.

What have you made of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, given his role studying and writing about mistakes in Vietnam, and the necessity of facing up to facts and reality?

I think McMaster is trying to walk a very thin line between serving the country by helping to steer Trump in the right direction while not trying to be completely co-opted by the craziness of that White House. I think for a lot of people he has gone too far down the road of accommodating. Personally, I feel better knowing he is there and knowing Mattis is there. And I am hopeful they can find a way to—in good conscience—restrain what might be disastrous impulses.

Is there some particular impulse you fear from Trump?

I think probably the biggest thing is the potential for triggering a conflict, and North Korea is the most dangerous place. I think any president—the worst damage they can do is get young Americans caught up in conflict overseas. But I am also alarmed by his general disregard for the First Amendment and the rights of … frankly Isaac, there is not an issue that I don’t find him to be a real problem for the United States. He just doesn’t understand. He’s unpredictable because I don’t think he knows from one day to the next what he is going to do.

You write a lot about the military. What is your sense of what people in the military, especially high up in the military, think about him?

I think they see him in much the same way the American people do. There are certain people who I think don’t give issues a great deal of thought and are frankly anti-intellectual and embrace his shoot-from-the-hip–level approach. But the greater majority of sensible people are horrified, especially those in a position to be sent overseas or into harm’s way. And they have every reason and appear to be very wary of what he will do or say next.