North Korea’s nuclear threats dominated the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly last week. The U.S.’ warning against North Korea’s nuclear development and the subsequent backlash from the North are leading bilateral tension to a critical point. On the first day of the U.N. General Assembly debate on September 19, U.S. President Donald Trump said in his keynote speech that Washington would totally destroy North Korea if the U.S. was forced to defend itself or its allies, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a “rocket man.” Here is Professor Kim Yong-hyun from the North Korean Studies Department at Dongguk University.

The phrase “totally destroy” is the strongest wording that has ever been used by Trump. It shows that the U.S. will never tolerate North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and that it may even attack the North. Of course, it doesn’t mean that the U.S. will actually put the words into practice. Rather, it is pressuring North Korea and has put the ball into Pyongyang’s court. By showing its strong determination, the U.S. is urging the North to stop nuclear experiments and intercontinental ballistic missiles launches.

On September 21, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un issued a statement in the capacity of the chairman of the State Affairs Commission and churned out scathing criticism against Trump over his remarks. Kim vowed to take the highest-level countermeasures in history and warned that whatever Trump might expect, he would face a result beyond his expectation. It is the first time that the North Korean leader himself has released a statement under his official title, except for his annual New Year’s speeches. It is said that this type of statement was not seen during the era of his predecessors. The unprecedented statement is seen as a sharp retort to Trump’s criticism of North Korea and its leader on the U.N. stage.

Kim’s statement is viewed as a tit-for-tat response to Trump’s address to the U.N. General Assembly. It is very rare that Kim has issued his personal statement himself. The strong reaction reflects the leader’s determination not to lose ground to Trump. North Korea seems to have wanted to show that it will counter any pressure from the U.S. or Trump’s personal views.

North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, who had mentioned the possibility of a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific Ocean, also lashed out at Trump using derogatory language in his keynote speech at the U.N. General Assembly on September 23. On the same day, the U.S. Department of Defense sent its B-1B Lancer strategic bombers to international airspace along North Korea’s east coast.

The show of force involving B-1B Lancer bombers off the North Korean coast indicates that the U.S. could use a military option, if necessary. The U.S. has various means to pressure North Korea, and it has demonstrated that its strategic bombers are one of the important cards to put military pressure on the North. It is a message toward not only North Korea but China and the international community as well. The U.S. wants to show that it is firmly determined to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue.

Meanwhile, on September 21, Trump announced a new executive order aimed at cutting off hard currency from flowing into North Korea. The tough measure targets individuals, companies and financial institutions doing business with North Korea. This is another intimidating card, other than military pressure, that can be used by Trump, who threatened to totally destroy North Korea. Five days later, on September 26, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on 10 North Korean banks.

The U.S. introduced a new executive order to clearly express its will not to sit idle and watch any additional provocations from North Korea, which has already pushed ahead with its sixth nuclear test. While the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2375 imposes tough sanctions on North Korea, the U.S. is showing to the international community that it will slap its own sanctions on the North. The entire process, after all, has the purpose of pressuring China.

Regarding escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula amid an intense war of words between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, China’s Foreign Ministry warned both sides to exercise prudence in speech and action. On September 23, China announced a plan to impose a limit on the supplies of petroleum products to North Korea. The measure is in line with the U.N. Security Council resolution, and it is significant that China will take such action for the first time. The measure is expected to place greater burden on North Korea, where oil-refining facilities are outdated. Attention turns to future relations between North Korea and China.

China’s measure to limit textile imports from North Korea and exports of petroleum products to the North will deal a severe blow to the North Korean economy. This will affect their economic relations in some way. But their political and military relations are different. It is advantageous for both sides to maintain close ties, considering their relations with the U.S. While North Korea may react strongly against China officially, it is actually committed to promoting bilateral relations. Some say that China’s influence over North Korea is diminishing, but that’s not really true. China, for its part, cannot abandon North Korea, and Pyongyang cannot endure international sanctions without cooperation with Beijing. Therefore, political and military relations between North Korea and China are still close.

On September 25, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho claimed that U.S. President Donald Trump declared war on the North, saying that his country will defend itself by shooting down American bombers at any time even when they are not in North Korean airspace. The U.S. refuted the claim and said that it has not declared war. Washington also said that it would take all options to make sure that it can safeguard its allies and its homeland. There are concerns that the fierce confrontation between the two nations is stoking tension on the Korean Peninsula even further.

It looks like North Korea and the U.S. are trains coming toward each other. If their bitter confrontation continues, both sides will find it a political burden. Bilateral tension should be defused by all means. China could play a mediating role, but it is too busy right now ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party. After the congress, a more active intervention by China may bring about a change in North Korea-U.S. relations. Still, diplomatic measures are necessary to prevent any mishaps from occurring. South Korea needs to prepare against any unexpected clashes on the Korean Peninsula.

Amid the already complicated national interests of each country in Northeast Asia, tension and confrontation between North Korea and the U.S. are making it even more difficult to break the nuclear deadlock.

[Interview] Podcast Provides a Better Picture of N. Korea through Literature

You’ve just heard “Bookcast,” a podcast created by university students from South and North Korea. Their studio is located in Yeonnam-dong, western Seoul, and the program is about reading North Korean novels and debating about them. Here is program host Seo Young-sik, who uses his nickname “Sigeumchi,” meaning “spinach,” to explain why they chose North Korean novels as the main subject.

In this program, university students from both sides of the border read and talk about North Korean novels to explore what North Korea is really like. I think a novel reflects the reality of a society or nation. South Korean novels such as “The Taebaek Mountains” are mirroring modern-day South Korea. In the same way, we wanted to better understand North Korea and follow its traces through the world of novels, rather than through news.

Bookcast is produced by two university students who defected from North Korea and three South Korean students. Just like the host, they are using their own nicknames like Genie, Bari, Kkokko and Kkamaknun, meaning “blind as a bat.” During the 20-minute show, they read and discuss North Korean novels. In the process, they can indirectly understand and experience North Koreans people’s lives, which permeate North Korean literature. For South Korean students, North Korean literature is a very unique and interesting subject. Let’s hear from a student nicknamed Bari.

When I first read a North Korean novel, I felt it was somewhat exotic, although it was written in Korean. It was a new and amazing experience for me. I felt that way because I perceived North Korea as a completely different world. When I opened the first page, I was curious and excited. While reading, I discovered that South and North Korea share a lot of similarities, even though there were differences in some social situations.

It is said that North Korean teenagers, just like their South Korean counterparts, are fond of novels and frequently go to libraries and bookstores. Here’s another student nicknamed Genie, who came to South Korea about two years ago.

Many people in North Korea enjoy reading novels. Students, in particular, read books in schools or borrow books from libraries. Many of them have books at home. Some people go to bookstores and read books there, paying a certain amount of money per hour. I remember many people read books in my hometown. There were libraries and privately-run bookstores. People would go there to read books in their spare time.

This is part of a story titled “My Teacher,” which was once introduced in Bookcast. The program is very careful when choosing novels. Seo Young-sik talks about what criteria they use to select stories or novels.

First, we choose novels that were published here in South Korea because we want other people to read them. Also, we try to select books without religious or political elements. We can’t broadcast a lot of North Korean novels because many of them praise the “dear leader” and contain pro-communist messages. We usually exclude these subjects. Still, we try to introduce the books, only briefly mentioning that they have some communist elements.

Once a book is selected, the team members get together to discuss how to write a script for the program. Sometimes, South Korean students wonder how similar or different a North Korea described in the novel is, compared to a real North Korea. It is students from North Korea who can satisfy the curiosity of their friends. Genie and Kkokko share their opinions.

The North Korean novels offer a glimpse into the lives of North Korean people. Their lives are what I experienced myself in the North. I know exactly what the novels are trying to tell us and why they used particular expressions. As I belong to the so-called jangmadang or market generation, which refers to North Koreans who grew up in a market economy, I was able to inform my friends of the changes the North has seen in recent years.

We were deeply touched by the story “My Teacher” and we talked a lot about it with each other. For South Koreans here, the first things that come to their mind when they hear North Korea are probably the third-generational power succession involving Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, as well as dictatorial brainwashing. Some even imagine a goblin with a horn. But this story tells us about a warm-hearted North Korean teacher who has a deep affection for students. My South Korean friends seemed to be greatly surprised at this part. When I told them about my own experience, it appeared that the story became more vivid to them.

Thanks to the North Korean students’ detailed explanations on their own experience, their South Korean friends were able to learn more about North Korean society and people, and get a deeper understanding of what other South Koreans do not even know. Let’s hear from a South Korean student with his nickname Kkamaknun.

I was surprised to hear that North Korean students, too, go to private learning institutes and receive private tutoring. I’ve never heard about that before. Contrary to my prior expectations, I learned that North Korean society is not very different from that in South Korea in some parts. It was really interesting to know that North Koreans wear blue jeans. I heard many young North Koreans who are exposed to South Korean films and TV series are keen on following South Koreans’ fashion style.

In this way, university students from South and North Korea can understand each other naturally while reading North Korean stories together. Just as the South Koreans find North Korean novels interesting, their North Korean friends find the online podcast platform cool and fun, since it provides a wide variety of content through the Internet. Here again is Genie.

I was amazed by the concept of a podcast. We do everything by ourselves, from planning and selecting books to deciding on a particular theme and writing a script. It feels like we’ve become producers. We believe we are almost professionals, although we may have too much pride in what we’re doing.

It’s been less than six months since Bookcast started, but the podcast has already secured nearly 1,000 listeners. It is drawing an increasing number of people not only from Korea but from overseas as well. The students stress that understanding each other through North Korean novels here is the beginning of mutual understanding and communication between South and North Korea.

While talking with North Korean friends, we found that South and North Korea share many things in common, and therefore they can become a lot closer to each other. I believe that’s the beginning of the unification of Korea.

If more programs like this are developed after unification, the two Koreas will surely be able to narrow their differences.

The gathering provides South Koreans with a better and clearer picture of North Korea through North Korean literature. Here’s hoping that there will be many more similar programs designed to promote inter-Korean communication.