It was party time in Pyongyang. Workers scrambled to hang congratulatory banners in the lobby of the Koryo Hotel, my home away from home in the North Korean capital, where I was posted as an Associated Press correspondent. A gaggle of cooks, still in aprons and chef’s hats, dashed out from the kitchen to watch the festivities, and mothers tightened the pink bows in their daughters’ hair as the girls fidgeted in anticipation.
Confetti twinkled through the air as the heroes of the moment paraded in, faces beaming, to cheers and wild applause. It was 2012, and the last time I had seen people around me so giddy was when my hometown baseball team, the Minnesota Twins, won the World Series in 1987.
But these men being feted in the streets of downtown Pyongyang were not star athletes. They were nuclear scientists. Like Grammy recipients, Oscar winners and World Series champions rolled into one, they are celebrated by a regime that considers the pursuit of nuclear weapons so essential to its security and to its future that it has been enshrined in the country’s Constitution.
This scene came to mind as I watched a North Korean TV announcer, her voice tremulous with victory, declare Wednesday that North Korea had successfully conducted another nuclear test, this time of a powerful hydrogen bomb.
The claim, not yet verified, has been met with skepticism. (Seismic data suggest a nuclear test, but the pattern is not consistent with a hydrogen bomb.) But having covered previous North Korean nuclear tests, I know the script: International outrage, emergency meetings and sanctions will follow in close suit. And as debate continues in regional capitals about what to do about the defiant North Koreans, their rock-star scientists will keep building better and more powerful nuclear weapons.
From the outside, North Korea can seem like a lunatic nation. Since the start of this century, no other country has tested a nuclear device; only one, Iran, even seems to have serious interest in acquiring one. And here is a small nation where the people are dancing in the streets celebrating the supposed creation of a bomb with the potential to exterminate whole cities. Footage of North Koreans cheering as they watched the news announced at noon local time Wednesday was like a scene out of an old Cold War movie, so anachronistic in this globalized era that the only response that makes any sense is to think the North Koreans are crazy.
But for those of us who have lived among the North Koreans, all of this looks a lot less insane inside Pyongyang than from the other side of the Demilitarized Zone.
For all its bluster and propaganda, North Korea is an impoverished country. We don’t know its precise G.D.P. because the regime has not published economic data for decades. But C.I.A. estimates put it at roughly $1,800 per capita, on par with some of the poorest nations in the world. Geographically, North Korea was dealt a bad hand: Mountainous, with an extreme climate that veers from bitterly cold winters to blistering summers, it simply does not produce enough food to sustain its people, and outmoded agricultural practices have only worsened that shortfall.
What North Koreans do have in spades is pride, a characteristically Korean trait that has protected this small peninsula for 5,000 years. For North Koreans, pride is manna. They may be hungry every day, but pride is what keeps them going. Not everyone can feast off pride — tens of thousands of North Koreans have defected over the decades — but enough of the population is buoyed by this singular sense of national pride and a Korean sense of conformity to keep the regime afloat.
The North Koreans know they don’t have much. But they know they have bombs that they believe can bring the world’s biggest nations, including their chief enemy, the United States, to their knees. At least we have nuclear weapons, and that makes us untouchable, North Koreans would often tell me when I was reporting in the country.
Twenty years of negotiations on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program won the regime millions in food aid, fuel and other concessions before the deals fell apart. But in addition to possible windfalls the bombs may bring when it comes time to negotiate, the North Koreans have a domestic imperative for building nuclear weapons. Bombs bring the people together, and Kim Jong-un has a political need for his people to start the year off on a high note: In May, North Korea will hold a Workers’ Party congress — the first in 36 years — where observers anticipate Kim may unveil his most ambitious policy changes yet.
During the 2009-11 succession period in which Kim Jong-un was being groomed to become leader, as well as the early years of his rule following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011, the younger Kim was pitched to the North Korean people as a modern military strategist who was keen to use science and technology to defend the nation against perceived threats from South Korea and the United States. Nuclear weapons are the culmination of that vision.
They are also a power play within his own leadership apparatus as he seeks to bring the once-mighty military into the party’s fold and at times experiences resistance. His is a bold strategy that calculates taking power and resources away from old-school military leaders trained in conventional weaponry and diverting it to scientists and hackers focused on building a defense based on technology. It is a tactic designed to appeal to the next generation of North Koreans, who will serve as the fledgling leader’s power base for decades to come. Children, even in electricity-starved North Korea, love technology, and they’re being told that the scientific projects they love so much can eventually bring them national glory.
In North Korea today, children are being raised to see nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles as their future. Playground slides are built in the shape of rockets and emblazoned with the name of the long-range space launch vehicle widely presumed to be a guise for a ballistic missile. Murals depicting rocket attacks on American forces adorn the walls of elementary schools I’ve visited. There is no confusion in North Korea about the purpose of the rockets: They are very clearly portrayed to children as ballistic missiles. Nuclear weapons are as much a part of the national mythology as they are a part of the arsenal — and for this reason, it is hard to imagine the country will give them up anytime soon.
Trying to understand what motivates the North Koreans doesn’t absolve them of their defiance. But knowing how sacred nuclear weapons are to them helps us understand how high their price will be when it comes time to negotiate away their sole treasure. In the meantime, the country will continue to build better weapons and stronger bombs, celebrating every test and rocket launch like a World Series championship in the streets of Pyongyang.
Jean H. Lee is a former Associated Press bureau chief who opened The A.P.’s Pyongyang bureau in 2012. She now teaches North Korean media studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea.