Hi, I'm Jonathan Cheng, and I run the Korea bureau for The Wall Street Journal in Seoul. Covering North Korea is a challenge unlike any other in the news business. It's not just opaque, it's a country that has made it a deliberate goal to obfuscate, and that makes even reporting the simplest of facts -- how old is Kim Jong Un? Is he even really the leader of the country? -- a tricky question. One might think going to Pyongyang would help. And it does, to some extent. But going there also raises as many questions as it answers. A delegation of four of us from the Wall Street Journal just returned from North Korea last week, a six-day trip that appears part of a coordinated effort to send a message to Washington about where it thinks it stands and what it wants -- and what it will and won't tolerate. We've written one essay-ish account of our week in Pyongyang, but in some ways, it only scratches the surface. So...feel free to ask me whatever you like.

Update: Thanks for the questions! I do need to wrap up now, but feel free to follow me on Twitter for updates. I'll also circle back and try to answer some of the ones that I've left hanging. Thanks everyone!

Proof: https://i.redd.it/zx0qw3jscpoz.jpg

Comments: 1102 • Responses: 49  • Date: 

JoshCarter41777 karma

If you could ask anyone in the DPRK's regime one question and have it answered honestly and sincerely, what would it be?

jchengwsj2486 karma

Hey guys! I'm back to answer this one. It's a tough one because there's so much that we want to know, and there are plenty of good questions that would be perfectly adequate, but you always want to find that perfect question, if you ever got the chance. Unfortunately, I'm not sure there is a perfect one. Most of the things we want to know are things that nobody knows, or that are likely to change quickly depending on circumstances, like, "How close are we to war?" or "Do you ever plan to use your nuclear weapons?" There are also a few that would fall into the unsolved mysteries category, like "What happened with Otto Warmbier exactly?" or "Did you order the hit on Kim Jong Nam, and why?" (North Korea has a lot of these unsolved mysteries, stretching right back to 1945 and beyond, but these would be two of the more recent ones.) Then there are the frivolous ones, like "Why Dennis Rodman?" or "Why that haircut?" I suppose I could also go down another line of reasoning: "What really keeps you up at night?" "Does your conscience ever nag you?" And I guess the one I'd really like to ask would be along those lines, and it'd be like this, for Kim Jong Un: "Did you ever contemplate a different path for North Korea when you took over from your father? You were educated abroad, and the country you inherited is in a very different position, and the world is a very different place, than when your grandfather founded the DPRK in 1948. Did you give any serious thought to a different path, and why did you ultimately choose this one?" I'm not sure how thoughtful and contemplative Kim is, but given the parameters of your question, Josh, with the prospect of an honest and sincere answer, that's probably what I'd ask. But hey, if anyone's got a better question, I'm all ears!

jchengwsj2271 karma

Josh, I'm saving this question for last, because I think it's a great one and my brain needs to process this a bit more...

mandarinfishy716 karma

How many North Koreans do you think actually believe most of the propaganda?

jchengwsj1300 karma

I think a lot more of them believe a lot more of the propaganda than one might think. Keep in mind that this isn’t a country where there are multiple sources of mass media and information. North Koreans have been provided with one narrative for their entire lives, and it’s only with the beginnings of alternative sources of information — USB drives, more travel to China, the internet (as restricted as it is) — that this is beginning to change. But only just a little, so far.

V1per41254 karma

that this is beginning to change. But only just a little, so far.

This is the first I've heard of North Koreans getting any access to alternative information. Do you have any more information on this?

How are they getting the USB drives?

How much of the information on them do they believe?

Is there an internal/underground network in DPRK where people disseminate this information?

Is there any sign of any kind of resistance forming as a result?

jchengwsj376 karma

There's a lot you can read on this. USB drives is a major channel for these new ideas. Try picking up Daniel Tudor/James Pearson's book, or Jieun Baek's, or any number of others who have done research on this.

SuperMcG218 karma

Here is a good Wired article from 2015 on the proliferation of DVDs and USB drives with outside media on it.

jchengwsj122 karma

Thank you -- yes, that's a good one.

PieterPlopplop101 karma

I think people forget how easy it is to mold people's minds with disinformation. Just look at the right wing info sphere in the US - there is a huge set of the population that has been conditioned to disbelieve any empirical fact delivered by any news source that isn't Fox / Rush / Breitbart / FB Meme, etc.

EDIT: Getting a lot of comments saying that the left is the same. Yes, MSNBC, CNN, WaPo, NYTimes lean left. That said, they aren't actively pursuing an anti-science, anti-fact, anti-intellectualism narrative. Saying that the right and the left are the same is simply untrue. Fox and it's ilk are in the propaganda business.

jchengwsj277 karma

I do think that one of the lessons of the 2016 election in the U.S. was just how much the world has retreated into its own bubbles of information. This isn't a novel idea, but I think it takes on an extra dimension of meaning when you apply it to what North Koreans have experienced for decades now.

sabometrics36 karma

How do you feel working for News Corp in a world where this is a huge problem?

MaesterMagoo14 karma

While WSJ leans right it is also not in the propaganda business.

jchengwsj43 karma

Thanks Magoo. I'll add too that our news pages (where I work) are firewalled from our opinion pages, and we do our best to tell it like it is as best we can. In the broader scheme of things, we in the journalism industry are still searching for a good model for how newspapers and media sources should be owned and managed and kept neutral and allowed to flourish, particularly in the age of the internet and questions about media credibility. It's an ongoing question, and not an easy one to answer.

RoyArad280 karma

Not related to NK but to propaganda and how much people can actually believe it.

15 years ago or so a friend of mine studied in Europe as a transfer student, and his dorm roomate grew up in a very antisemitic area his whole life (cant rem the name of the place) and after finding out that my friend was of jewish origin the roomate was shocked and literally asked him where are his horns and why is his nose so small. Apprently his whole life he's been told and showed images of jews as they look like devils drink blood and what not. Took the roomate a couple of days to take all that and still looked at my friend funny everytime for the whole semester.

Just a glimpse on how much a person can believe when they grow up on this kind of things and i have no doubt that the majority there believe every word. Just imagine how weird it is to open a usb you found and seeing stuff that goes against everything you have ever been told, very likely that you'll ignore it and continue on your life as always.

jchengwsj117 karma

Thanks for sharing. I think we can all agree that this kind of thing is possible all over the world.

TorontoStanDan29 karma

Jonathan, what's your favourite KBO team/player?

jchengwsj91 karma

Softball question! I’m glad you asked, though the answer is complex. I’ve been to many games now, mostly in Seoul, since…well, that’s where I live. I’ve tried to get into Doosan and LG, the two obvious choices, but neither of them has given me a game that would inspire me to devote my allegiance to them. Maybe I’m asking for the impossible. But last game I went to was an LG game where I really wanted to love them…and then in the top of the ninth, they gave up a walk-off grand slam to the other team. I want so badly to want to cheer for them, but I’m not a masochist. And, per your handle, I’m a Toronto native, so the Jays are obviously my MLB team of choice.

aspz437 karma

You wake up in Kim Jong Un's body. You can speak and understand Korean. Without getting assassinated by your commanders, how do you transition North Korea and its people from an Orwellian state of despair to a prosperous nation so you can then ride your fame to launch your career in music?

jchengwsj853 karma

Tell the Chinese I want out, have them sub in a puppet leader for me in Pyongyang and have them promise to veto any UN resolutions that would ever target me. Then, call up Dennis Rodman and start a record label or something.

flosantiae358 karma

Hello, Mr. Cheng!

Looking back at the trip now, what would you say has made the biggest impression on youself?

Also a general question, if OK. How did you become interested in North Korea?

jchengwsj483 karma

Hi there, and thanks for the question. The biggest impression, I think, was the same one I had when I was there a few years ago: the cult of the Kims is something truly to behold. It's certainly unlike anything I've ever seen or experienced, or even read about.

As for your second question, I became interested the same way many of our readers became interested. I read the newspaper articles for years before moving to Seoul, and was intrigued by it. Many of us in the newspaper business, of course, are drawn to things that we can't quite understand. The origins of the state, and the rise of Kim Il Sung in particular, are also fascinating to me. I studied history in college, and focused a lot on East Asian history, so that has always been an extra source of interest as well.

alreddyreadit257 karma

what's the most surprising opinion you've heard from someone in North Korea?

jchengwsj574 karma

I think what struck us as a group (and I’m just recalling this off the top of my head) was hearing our handlers at the Foreign Ministry complain, genuinely, about how obsessed their kids were with computer games and their smartphones. It’s just not something we were expecting to hear, I guess because we ourselves have our own conceptions about what life in North Korea is like. On the more conventional, political front, I think what was most surprising was a quote we included in our story last Saturday, which was a waitress/bartender telling us that she wished Pyongyang would fire off 20-30 missiles per day. It was a reminder that there may be even more hawkish opinions inside the country than we hear/read about.

Hockeyhoser158 karma

Did you believe them when they said these things?

jchengwsj317 karma

I do. I don't think they were coached to say it (as I mentioned in answer to another question), and in the case of the bartender's 20-30 missiles remark, that sentiment broadly reflects the state's priorities -- which I do believe have been deeply inculcated into the people's thinking.

all4reddit252 karma

Are the NK people preparing for war?

jchengwsj604 karma

One way to answer this is to say that they're always preparing for war. The country is on a perpetual war footing, and the language and rhetoric of their state media really has made it seem like a U.S. invasion has been imminent for a very long time. Are they more prepared than usual at the moment? It's hard for us to know, unfortunately, on a five-day guided visit to the capital. But my sense is that it must be at least a touch higher than usual, given -- as I mentioned in answer to another question -- that the situation these days is truly more unstable than in the past. North Korea is near the finish line on its weapons program, and a very unpredictable -- you could say a proudly unpredictable -- president is in the White House.

allwordsaremadeup121 karma

Follow up to war preparation story. Is NK sacrificing other aspects of it's military/society and all-in on the nukes, or are the nukes part of a general increase in means. I've seen hints of both.

jchengwsj221 karma

Great question. I'll try to answer through the lens of official state ideology. Under KJU's dad Kim Jong Il, the official policy was "son'gun," or "military first." As that name implies, it explicitly prioritized the military's needs over those of civilians or the party. Under Kim Jong Un, the policy is "byungjin," or "dual advance," meaning that nuclear development shares a top billing with the economy. It's the "guns and butter" policy, you could say. That's just a political line, of course, but my gut sense is that under KJU, it really is both that are growing. Obviously, any development that goes into its weapons program must come at the expense of it going into something else. But then again, the South Korean authorities estimate that economic growth in North Korea is at its best level in years, because its weapons program is helping its economy. I'm not sure I totally buy that, but I hope this answer mostly helps.

seijisloan250 karma

What do North Korean people think of South Korea and is the goal of reunification on their minds?

jchengwsj416 karma

Officially, many of them are repulsed by South Korea because, in their minds, it's not a real country. It's a puppet state propped up by the U.S. after the Korean War. But obviously, there is a lot of pathos and intrigue with the South as well, since -- more so than in South Korea -- they still keep very much alive the dream of unification. Not to say they don't in South Korea, of course, but you feel it and see it more when you're north of the DMZ. At least, based on my limited interactions...!

egytoker221 karma

I've heard many people talking about how marijuana is both legal, and socially accepted in NK. Is that actually true?

jchengwsj421 karma

I've read that as well, but it's not something I know for sure either way -- and I must confess, we neglected to ask our Foreign Ministry counterparts about this while we were there. All I can say is that we didn't catch any whiffs of weed while we were there.

Samw900195 karma

Do the people want war? Nuclear war? Do you think they really know the ramifications of a nuclear war?

In general, what was it like?

jchengwsj414 karma

I don't think the people want war. I think what they would probably say is what you hear coming from the U.S. leadership: We don't want war, but we're not afraid of war if that's what it takes. Do they know the ramifications of a nuclear war? I don't know that any of us really do, on a visceral level. It's been 72 years since an atomic bomb was used to kill people, and I know a lot of disarmament and arms control experts have been working overtime to try and convey the seriousness and horror of nuclear war to a world that's a bit inured to it all, but I still think a lot of us don't get the ramifications. And in North Korea, I'm not sure they have any voices trying to convey this message -- not that I've seen, anyway.

allen009143 karma

What was the scariest thing you saw there?

jchengwsj361 karma

On the second night, three of us from the Journal went out on an evening stroll from our guesthouse (circa 10pm). It was pitch black outside, and we were in a rather remote rural guesthouse. Why did we walk out? Because the Foreign Ministry officials said we should, and we wanted some fresh air and to stretch our legs after a long, grueling day of being shuttled around Pyongyang in cars. We wandered down a hill in the darkness (I had my phone flashlight/torch on), and I definitely heard someone coming towards us. It was just four armed soldiers marching past us. Didn't glance up at us. Didn't seem to pay us any mind. Just doing their marching thing. It made me recall the 2008 shooting death of a South Korean woman who had gone up to Keumgangsan (Mount Keumgang, Diamond Mountains), a resort set up just north of the DMZ on the east coast, where South Koreans were -- until the shooting -- able to visit the North on vacation. While the circumstances of that death remain a pretty bitter source of dispute between the two Koreas, we figured it was a good reminder that we should probably get back inside.

shittymicrobiologist138 karma

I saw a few photos from another group that just visited NK and I was surprised at how modern some parts of the country seems. What are some misconceptions that the US public may have about NK that you, having taken this trip, would like to help clear up?

jchengwsj248 karma

Yes, indeed! Keep in mind that you're probably looking at photos of the capital, Pyongyang. That's not to say that things are filthy and awful elsewhere, but the most modern parts are generally in Pyongyang. We published a bunch of photos of this too in our Saturday essay last week, if you want to have a look. The main misconception I think that persists in the U.S. about North Korea is that everyone is struggling and wants to get out (that's a bit of a blanket statement, but there are many people in the U.S. who feel this way). There surely are North Koreans who want to get out -- 30,000 have resettled in South Korea, and there may be many more who would like to leave but can't. But there are also many millions who don't want to leave. For one thing, they don't know much about the outside world, and what little they do know isn't positive (you can thank North Korean state media for that). And many of them may believe that life is much better outside the country, but the risks, and the costs, of trying to leave are simply prohibitive. And life is definitely improving for the higher classes in North Korea, so arguably there is less reason to leave. I could go on and on, but I hope this makes sense. And to be clear, I'm not saying everyone is happy there (or that everyone who is happy would remain happy if they knew more about their own country and about the rest of the world), but if you got to ask people freely how they feel about their country (and if they were allowed to freely answer), I think most of them would genuinely tell you that they like where they are.

castmanc129 karma

Did you feel any kind of tension in Pyongyang? Is the population aware of Donald Trumps recent threats against North Korea? Does the state-run media mention it?

jchengwsj207 karma

Unfortunately, we were in Pyongyang just before Donald Trump's UN speech, which really raised the heat. We've seen DPRK's state media come out ferociously since then, in a way I haven't seen in my four years watching North Korea closely. (Nicholas Kristof was in the country after me, so maybe he'll have some thoughts on this...) While we were there, though, in mid-September, it really was quite calm. Yes, there are posters and cakes and all sorts of other messages plastered all over Pyongyang warning of destruction and war and all of that, but you don't see it in the people -- unless, of course, you ask them how they feel about the U.S.

sarasublimely75 karma

When you asked the people of North Korea how they feel about the U.S., what were some responses?

Thanks for doing this AMA.

jchengwsj171 karma

Their answers were mostly in line with the government's stance: the U.S. is the source of many of North Korea's woes because it divided the country, tried to stifle it with sanctions, turned the southern half of the peninsula into a puppet state, etc., etc. But again, they were careful to point out that they don't dislike Americans as individuals per se -- just the U.S. "hostile policy" (a phrase, by the way, that you will hear a LOT if you go to North Korea as an American).

lost_cays72 karma

Warning cakes?

jchengwsj196 karma

When they present you with a warning cake, you know it's serious.

akjkakjk120 karma

What’s the feeling among South Koreans right now? How’s it impacting their political environment? Thanks!

jchengwsj217 karma

Good question. Many South Koreans are definitely concerned (though not all of them, not by a long shot), but life goes on. This is life in the shadow of a North Korean threat that’s existed since the 1950s, just like I imagine life in NYC or London rolls on under the threat of terrorism. (Not the same, I know, but perhaps the mentalities are the same?) As for the politics, the most striking thing we see is just how left out and wrong-footed the new administration has had with the crisis. Moon Jae-in is a left-leaning president, the first in nearly a decade, and he had a very different vision for how things would play out on the inter-Korean front under his watch. I don’t think he expected things to play out this way. And the feeling of being left out is very real here. Donald Trump seems to portray the issue as one either between himself and Kim Jong Un, or at most, one that involves China and Japan. South Korea and Russia, it seems, are more tertiary players in the way he’s framed things, or at least that’s how it often feels in Seoul.

mangoloss90 karma

A small sample size, but my girlfriend's family is concerned mostly about Donald Trump's responses rather than NK threats

jchengwsj153 karma

I haven't done the research, but I suspect your girlfriend's family is not alone on this one.

alexbr59119 karma

How do they treat forigeners?

jchengwsj367 karma

We were invited guests of the Foreign Ministry, so our treatment was very good. Tourists are paying customers, so they are treated well, with a few notable and tragic exceptions. Aid workers, too, are bringing in things and providing services that the state is not, so they are also treated well. Foreigners from friendly nations are allies and comrades, so they too are treated well. With respect to Americans in particular, the line that we often heard is that they don't like the U.S. government, but they're fine with Americans as individuals. (Many Americans would say the same of North Korea.)

fredzannarbor81 karma

What do you think is the maximum provocation North Korea is likely to undertake?

jchengwsj152 karma

Thanks Fred, that's a tough, almost unknowable question, but I think the answer, roughly speaking, is that North Korea will find ways to come right up to the line -- whatever that may be -- without crossing it, and it will probably do so in a way that we don't necessarily expect. Take an example from recent weeks. They threaten Guam with a pretty specific scenario, and then they test-launch a missile over Japan (and then do it again). Now, they've threatened an H-bomb detonation over the Pacific...my hunch is that it's a red herring and they do something else instead. Not that I know for sure, of course...

Calt_75 karma

What do you think are the biggest problems in the western media's portrayal of North Korea and what do you see as the underlying reasons for it being what it is? What could be done to improve/diversify the coverage?

The image people get from the media has a huge effect on how they think. The larger audience aside, how much influence do you think the media narrative has on those actually deciding the policy? Mostly referring to the U.S. here but also elsewhere.

Thank you! Please keep doing what you do, love reading your articles & KCNA quotes on twitter :)

jchengwsj118 karma

The biggest problem in the western media, I think, is the same thing that bedevils western media coverage of other parts of the world: resources are few, and they're not likely to get any better. That means that you have very few people on the ground trying to cover a country of 23 million people (in North Korea's case) or of 50 million people (in South Korea's case). Many western media outlets don't have anyone permanently stationed, or permanently focused, on Korea. That's not to say good work can't be done, but it does make it more difficult for in-depth work and careful consideration to be given to the issue. We have a bureau of five in Seoul, which is pretty good all things considered, but I'd sure love to double that size. (I'm dreaming, I know.) And then, of course, there are some things that even adding more bodies can't fix: access to North Korea is extremely limited, and even when it's granted, it's debatable how helpful it really is, since that access does come with serious strings attached.

As for policymakers, it's hard for me to know, not being a policymaker. I know that senior U.S. officials have far more sources of information than just the WSJ, or NYT/Washpost/FT/Bloomberg/Reuters/AP/etc., at their disposal. I presume we are one factor in that, and that we are read by policymakers as much for the impact it'll have on public sentiment as we are for the actual content of what we write.

rigelstarr65 karma

What is your most memorable quote coming from the DKPR news agency? There have been some real winners I know as I follow you in Twitter.

Also, do you believe the journalists actively help subvert the truth or actually believe what they report to be true in the DKPR?

Is there basically a mass delusion effect going on because they are so cut off from the world?

jchengwsj106 karma

Yeah, this is another impossible question. KCNA is truly masterful at the insults and memorable quotes. Some of it is definitely because of translation issues and the linguistic gap (e.g. "dotard"), but a lot of it is by design. As with the rest of their capabilities, the DPRK is very good at playing the asymmetric game, and having an arsenal of bet-you-never-thought-of-that zingers at their disposal is a sign of how sophisticated they are, I think. Or maybe I'm giving them more credit than they deserve. But alas, I don't think I can choose just one. They're all my favorite!

yukaby64 karma

Hello Mr. Cheng, I follow your twitter! You're cool.

What do you think it would take for internal collapse of the regime? Do you think it's possible within the next few months? I live near Seoul, so I've been very worried. Honestly, I'm hoping for a miracle that could kill KJU without some sort of war.

Thanks for your reporting, and venturing into NK for the rest of us 🙏

jchengwsj86 karma

Hi there, predicting the collapse of the regime is a bit of a fool's errand. We may as well try and predict the collapse of...well, any other state in the world. I think the only thing we know is that it never happens when everything thinks it's going to happen. There are many internal contradictions in North Korea -- but there are in any country, including the U.S. -- and that doesn't in and of itself doom the current leadership to ruin. Internal contradictions can run on and on for a long time. On the other hand, I think people who assert that North Korea will never collapse, simply because it's been wrongly predicted by others, is also misguided. It really could collapse, and it may have nothing to do with anything we're thinking of right now. But yes, I think we can all agree with your sentiment: nobody wants war.

A_Tame_Sketch59 karma

How was the soju? I've had some pyongyang soju and that shit was like gasoline.

jchengwsj86 karma

Be careful with that stuff!

Aj83457 karma

Did you get to speak with any North Koreans other than your guides? What did they say?

jchengwsj134 karma

Hi there. Yes, we did, but only a couple of short exchanges in each case. The only truly extended conversations we got were with our two Foreign Ministry handlers, who were with us throughout the day everyday, and with the senior official who we got to sit down with for extended chats a few times (in our case, a man named Ri Yong Pil). We quoted some of the other North Koreans in the article that we ran last Saturday, and what they said -- surprise, surprise -- wasn't terribly different from what we heard from the Foreign Ministry officials. People ask if that's because they were coached. I don't believe they were coached (i.e. "You're going to meet these foreigners from the Wall Street Journal. Here's what you should say."). I think that the message is so deeply inculcated into society that they don't need that kind of coaching because I think they truly do believe the narrative. It's a compelling one: We're a small nation that stood up to the world's most powerful country, an empire that seeks to swallow us whole. Once you accept that, much of the rest of their message -- we need nuclear weapons to defend ourselves, for example -- isn't so much of a stretch.

TallSunflower53 karma

Would you go again for non business reasons?

jchengwsj113 karma

Good question, but one that's hard to answer without asking a lot of follow-on questions. Presuming you mean under the current leadership of the DPRK (if you don't mean that, then that's a very different question), my answer would be a cautious yes, in principle, but the reason would have to be a very good one. Even if I don't see a risk myself, there are many others around me -- my wife, my family, my employer, my colleagues, my government -- for whom the risk calculation is very different, and by going, I'd be potentially making life more difficult for them. But in principle, yes, cautiously, with big caveats.

Duke_Paul45 karma

Hi Mr. Cheng, thanks for doing an AMA!

I have a couple of questions: First, is the North Korean regime (whether it's Kim Jong Un calling the shots or not) actually nutso, or are they playing with a Madman policy, or are their actions actually fairly reasonable/logical? Secondly, what is your take on the sanctions in place on the country (and its leaders?)--do they impact the leadership in any meaningful way, or do they end up just falling on the people anyway?

Thanks again!

jchengwsj82 karma

Thanks for the question. I personally do not believe they are nuts. Nuts can work for a little while, but it generally doesn't work for three generations, over the course of 72 years, when stacked up against the world's biggest political and economic powers (the U.S., Japan, China, Russia, South Korea). I'm not saying it's reasonable or logical, per se, but I do think they know what they're doing, and they're very smart about it.

And I'm not sure on sanctions, to be honest. It's been a hot debate for, oh, years and years and years. No question the leadership have ways to ensure that the pain to them is minimal.

RandomPotatos37 karma

Do you think North Korea has the capability to launch a full scale attack on the US?

jchengwsj103 karma

No, but if it were, say, to strike one or two large American cities with a nuclear device -- which is something they could conceivably do in the coming days/months/years, missile-defense willing -- then you have to ask the question, how different is that really from a full-scale attack? It's not boots on the ground (which I don't think anyone really thinks is possible), but it'd be incredibly horrifying...

Ih8pixelmodz34 karma

Chocolate or vanilla ice cream?

jchengwsj133 karma

Vanilla. But please don't overinterpret that. I really do just like vanilla ice cream.

Jasonaxe30 karma

Will your answers to this questions effect your next visa in anyway?

jchengwsj71 karma

To be honest, it's impossible to know what they read, how much of it they read, and how much they care. There's certainly plenty that I've written and said prior to our trip last month, in the WSJ or on Twitter or otherwise, that I suppose you could argue would be dealbreakers, depending on what one considers a dealbreaker. But there we were in Pyongyang. I do always try to be careful and measured with what I say and write, knowing that it's a complex and delicate situation, but if they don't want me there because of something I've written, then that's a price that I'm willing to pay.

fredzannarbor20 karma

What would you estimate the probability of war and how would you describe your confidence level of that estimate?

jchengwsj60 karma

Hi again Fred. I'd estimate the probability as still being south of 50%, maybe even as low as 10%, but I'm not sure I'd ascribe a high level of confidence to that estimate. As has been pointed out by many, many others, the concern really is on both sides, these days. Under previous U.S. presidents, you could be reasonably confident that the U.S. would never launch a unilateral strike, and you could be reasonably confident that the North would never do one either. But Pres. Trump truly changes the calculus on the U.S. side, and that in turn I think changes the calculus on the Pyongyang side. Keep in mind too that Trump's election is not the only major new factor here; the other is that the DPRK is more or less at the finish line of what it needs/wants -- a credible nuclear-tipped missile that can reach the U.S. Once it has that, it will presumably continue to develop its weapons programs, but that'll be gravy for them, I think, on top of a baseline credible deterrent.

LennonForPresident17 karma

How far did your observations differ from the reality of North Korea being a place of poverty and famine? Did the North Korean officials stage anything?

jchengwsj48 karma

I don't think they staged anything for us in particular (beyond little things like the orphanage visit and children's musical performance), but that's overlooking that all of Pyongyang is a stage in a sense. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, who went in a week or two before us, made that analogy. North Korea did indeed suffer a famine in the 1990s, which it has been quite open about (though it hasn't been upfront about all the causes of it), but it's not in famine any longer. Poverty, though, surely exists, though we didn't see much of it in the showcase capital.

haydenj9616 karma

Hey Jonathan,

Love reading your coverage of Korea in WSJ every morning (well, not every morning, you need a day off too, but you know what I mean).

How did you get the DPRK to even agree to this? I would think WSJ would represent everything that they hate about this country. Do they see this as a win? I'd think they'd find it quite easy to just say no way. Why do they see this as a good thing?

jchengwsj42 karma

Great question. I think they really had a message they wanted to get out there: We have nukes, we've won, give up and sign a peace treaty with us already. And we were far from alone in being invited -- as I've mentioned elsewhere, the New Yorker went in before us, the NYT after us, and I suspect the message was quite consistent. We at the WSJ have an extra edge, in the sense that we're perceived as being the paper closest to the current administration, and are therefore a good conduit of this message. (I'm not going to go into a long spiel here on the differences between our news and opinion pages, but suffice it to say that the four of us who went in for the WSJ work for the news pages, and aren't aligned with any political party or ideological commitments.) That's my best guess of why they wanted us there.

Carb0hydrate15 karma

Hi Jonathan! I love reading your coverage on NK. You do excellent work.

Most of the questions I'd like to ask pertaining to NK have already been asked, so instead I'll ask about the atmosphere of working in WSJ. How do you like it? Did the WSJ experience a spike in subscription post-Trump's election (I believe I read that it did for TNYT, so I'm wondering about WSJ)? Did the work atmosphere change after it, and if it did, was it for the better or the worse, in your opinion?

Also - what news sources do you regularly read that are non-WSJ? Thanks for your work!

jchengwsj19 karma

Hi there, thanks for the question. I've been at the WSJ for more than a decade now, and I love it. It's hard to separate out what change in atmosphere there was post-Trump in the WSJ, as opposed to the many changes in atmosphere that were apparent everywhere else in the world. I don't think there was anything particular to the WSJ that changed after his election -- I think the world changed to a large extent. And being in Korea does insulate me as well in some ways, simply because I'm so far away and the time zones are inverted and we're not watching a lot of developments in real time. As for non-WSJ sources, most of my Twitter links should give you a sign of what I'm reading. I don't tweet everything I read, but most everything I find interesting, regardless of whether it's WSJ or not, I will tweet, presuming it's credible.

jonoboiiy14 karma

Hi Jon. RHHS represent!

If NK was to welcome any North American boyband, which one would it be?

And which boyband member would get caught doing something ridiculous to sabotage the event?

Edit: one letter of the alphabet.

jchengwsj34 karma

RHHS was a great place! North Korea has brought in some pretty strange acts over the years. I'm going to vote for 98 Degrees and Nick Lachey, because Kim Jong Un is a child of the 90s and I can just kind of picture that happening.

shawnwasim11 karma

How would you describe the poverty in NK? Is it really as bad as American media makes it seem?

jchengwsj32 karma

There is poverty in North Korea, but none of it is really visible if you stick to Pyongyang, as we did. You'd really have to get out to the provinces -- North and South Hamgyong Provinces, for example -- to get a better sense of that. On the outskirts of Pyongyang, we saw lots of oxcarts doing agricultural work, but I presume you mean more urban poverty.

itsmelen9 karma

Jonathan, have you seen evidence that the North Korean regime maintains gulag style labor camps?

Also, have you been able to slip away from the parts that the regime "wants" you to see to get a better sense of how North Koreans live?

jchengwsj20 karma

This is a relatively simple question to answer: Yes, I've read evidence of these labor camps, in the U.N. Commission of Inquiry's report from 2014, among other places. Have I witnessed these camps firsthand in North Korea? No, alas, I have not.

Andrique_8 karma

What effect do the sanctions placed on NK have on their missile program? Considering that they have seemed to largely ignore them

jchengwsj37 karma

I think Vladimir Putin put it best when he said a few weeks ago that the North Koreans will eat grass, but they won't give up their weapons program (that's a paraphrase). That's not to say sanctions have no place in policy, but if anyone's expecting sanctions alone to make Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons, I've got bad news for you.

BabyRolliePolli7 karma

If you had to predict, how do you see this all turning out? Do you think we are going to be in a state of Cold War-like tension for years with no actual military conflict? Do you think there is going to be a war? Do you think there will be some kind of coup or regime change that comes internally or from China or somewhere else that doesn't have anything to do with us?

jchengwsj34 karma

I'm no seer, but I'm presuming a military conflict doesn't break out, though that may be more a reflection of what I want. That leaves us, likely, with a state of Cold War-like tension, as you put it. North Korea develops its capabilities and becomes a de facto nuclear state, though the U.S. denies it for a while. Finally, someone in Washington throws in the towel and tries to strike a peace treaty with North Korea -- mostly on Pyongyang's terms. Not a pretty outcome, but I think this is my working base-case assumption.

BabyRolliePolli6 karma

What do you think the US could do to calm the situation? What do you think would be helpful at all to get to some kind of peaceful resolution or at least de-escalation?

jchengwsj24 karma

Many of us who live in South Korea and the region would certainly sleep more easily with some kind of deescalation. But it seems like the current U.S. administration is trying to use escalation as some kind of a policy tool. But I haven't spoken with the president lately, so I'm not sure exactly what is going on.

frequenxyiv6 karma

Have you covered on any other issues other than on North Korea working as a bureau chief?

And what was going through your mind when you first covered on North Korea?

jchengwsj24 karma

This year has been a pretty busy one for Korea. In addition to North Korea, we had a major corruption scandal in South Korea that took down the president and put Samsung's heir in prison. That took a lot of time to cover!

cpallison324 karma

Let's say the US takes out Jong-Un and many government officials without harming citizens. Do you think the citizens would even want to be under US influence? Or do they view America as an evil country that should never be trusted?

jchengwsj18 karma

I think many of them do view America as an evil country, and more importantly, Korea has long been an independent nation that has chafed at any semblance of foreign control -- instincts that have been sharply honed by Pyongyang over the years. So I think that even if North Korea's leadership was removed and the U.S. was someone able to exert its influence over the country (quite an assumption, since China will surely have a strong opinion on this), it'd be wise to not play up those aspects too much.