There are many, many stories in the English-language press you could read about North Korea, but in very few has the reporter actually gained access to the country. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos managed to visit this summer, and not just on one of the upbeat, stage-managed tours the government typically makes available to foreigners, but alone with a photographer and photographer’s assistant—or at least, as alone as a foreigner can be when visiting the isolated state. To be sure, Osnos was carefully minded throughout his trip, largely by a Mr. Pak from the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Institute for American Studies. Nonetheless, the on-the-ground detail woven into his story makes it unusually rich and engaging, a stand-out read amid thousands of stories about bombs and bluster. The familiarity of some details—couples on park benches, a television playing in a restaurant—make the unfamiliar ones—like a blanket once touched by Kim Jong Un enshrined in a Plexiglas reliquary—all the more striking.
As Osnos tries to decipher North Korea, Pak tries to understand the United States. He likens his countrymen to Mormons, who “organized like a bee colony” and made the desert thrive. Of Donald Trump, Pak says, “He might be irrational—or too smart. We don’t know.”