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Inside North Korea

PYONGYANG, North Korea

 

After meeting with world leaders, declaring his nuclear force "complete," and vowing to focus on economic development, Kim Jong Un put on a massive show in September 2018. In front of foreign dignitaries, the world press, and thousands of North Korea's elite, Kim displayed his conventional military might while telegraphing a new age of economic progress and international engagement. I led a team of multimedia journalists to Pyongyang to witness these events and chronicle the new face Kim wanted to show to a world still skeptical of the North Korean dictator.

Inside the spectacle and symbolism of North Korea's Mass Games - Sept. 6, 2018
Founding anniversary a chance for Kim Jong Un to raise cash, project new image - Sept. 7, 2018
North Korea military parade features floats and flowers, not missiles - Sept. 9, 2018
Drones and gymnasts: 'Mass Games' return with messages of reconciliation - Sept. 10, 2018
North Korea's 'Mass Games' provide tourist spectacle, and sobering reminder - Sept. 13, 2018
Chairs placed in glass, diagrams of footsteps: Kim Jong Un's visits memorialized in North Korea - Sept. 14, 2018
'Cuddled in Kim Jong Un’s arms': North Koreans envisage unification - Sept. 17, 2018
The North Korea crisis: View from the South

SEOUL, South Korea

 

Tensions between North Korea and the United States reached a crescendo in November 2017 with the launch of what was believed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the United States. Only a month later, however, North Korea embarked on a risky diplomatic gambit that led to historic summits with the leaders of South Korea, China, and the United States. Throughout this period of intense military tensions and dramatic diplomatic engagements, I went behind the headlines to examine the complicated issues at the heart of the crisis.

'Missiles like these will start the war': North Korea tests showcase growing capability - May 10, 2019 
Body language: The Russian science keeping North Korea's dead leaders looking fresh - March 6, 2019 
Burden back on diplomats as Trump and Kim fail to reach North Korea deal - HANOI, Vietnam, Feb.  28, 2019 
Sanctions still biting but pressure waning ahead of Trump-Kim summit - HANOI,
Vietnam, Feb.  25, 2019 
North Korea's box of bones: A mythical king and the dream of Korean unification - Oct. 21, 2018
When to end the war? North Korea, U.S. at odds over path to peace - July 26, 2018
Who has Kim Jong Un's 'nuclear button' in Pyongyang while he's away? - June 11, 2018
Impossible dream? Unification less of a priority as Korean leaders prepare to talk - April 25, 2018
North Korea peace deal - Neither a new nor a simple idea - April 19, 2018
Differing views of 'denuclearization' complicate North Korea talks - March 28, 2018
How North Korea's latest ICBM test stacks up - November 29, 2017
South Korea's surviving 'comfort women' spend final years seeking atonement from Japan

DAEGU, Afghanistan - Nov. 23 2018

With a dwindling number of registered South Korean survivors still alive, there is a sense of urgency behind efforts by the women to receive a formal apology as well as legal compensation from Japan while their voices can still be heard. Japan says the claims have been settled by past agreements and apologies, and that the continued controversy threatens relations between the two countries. But survivors like Lee Yong-soo say Tokyo's apologies ring hollow. “Since 1992, I had been asking Japan to make sincere apology, that is what I want,” Lee said.

U.S. drone pilots defend tactics as Afghans question civilian toll

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan - Dec. 22, 2016

 

In the final piece in a series investigating the American drone war, I explored the sharp discrepancies in accounts by drone pilots, who claimed not to have killed a single civilian in Afghanistan in 2016, and victims who often tell a different story. The certainty expressed by drone operators in dozens of exclusive interviews often contrasted with the chaos described by witnesses on the ground. Investigating this story required not only securing rare access to the U.S. military's secretive drone program, but tracking down victims and witnesses in some of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan.

Under U.S. plan, Afghans may get Black Hawks to replace Russian aircraft

KABUL, Afghanistan - Nov. 29, 2016

 

After years of reluctance, the U.S. military decided to replace Afghanistan's well-worn fleet of Russian helicopters with American-made aircraft, according to a budget proposal I obtained, a decision aimed at reducing the Afghan air force's decades-long reliance on Russian equipment. The Pentagon order called for 53 older-model U.S. military UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for the Afghans, enough to replace the current fleet of Mi-17 helicopters, a plan that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require retraining potentially hundreds of Afghan pilots to fly the new craft.

Under U.S. plan, Afghans may get Black Hawks to replace Russian aircraft

KABUL, Afghanistan - Nov. 29, 2016

 

After years of reluctance, the U.S. military decided to replace Afghanistan's well-worn fleet of Russian helicopters with American-made aircraft, according to a budget proposal I obtained, a decision aimed at reducing the Afghan air force's decades-long reliance on Russian equipment. The Pentagon order called for 53 older-model U.S. military UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for the Afghans, enough to replace the current fleet of Mi-17 helicopters, a plan that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require retraining potentially hundreds of Afghan pilots to fly the new craft.

U.S. ditched plan to give Afghan forces more armored vehicles

KABUL, Afghanistan - July 4, 2016

 

As Afghan troops were preparing to take on Taliban militants without NATO combat support in 2014, U.S. officials shelved plans to provide them with hundreds of potentially life-saving armored vehicles, according to documents I exclusively obtained. The decision not to supply around 300 extra vehicles, taken largely for budgetary reasons, remains a sore point and set up a multi-million dispute over arms programs, as local forces struggled to implement a U.S.-led push to get them off bases and into active battle against a resilient insurgency.

Drones emerge from shadows to become key cog in U.S. war machine

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan/CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada - June 7, 2016

 

The second in a series investigating the American drone war, this piece examined how the military's unmanned aircraft program has expanded far beyond targeted counterterrorism strikes to become an everyday part of the war machine. As the first journalist to visit the secretive bases in both Afghanistan and the deserts of Nevada, I conducted dozens of exclusive interviews that revealed how unmanned aircraft have become an integral tool on the battlefield. That is likely to raise further objections from critics who say drones may miss their intended targets, can only partly relay what is happening on the ground and encourage warfare with impunity waged by people at computers far from danger.

Afghan drone war: Data show unmanned flights dominate air campaign

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan - April 21, 2016

 

Afghanistan was the country first bombed by a drone in 2001, but since then the true extent of the drone war here has been largely hidden. For this piece I obtained exclusive and previously unreported numbers that reveal how, for the first time in Afghanistan, U.S. Air Force drone strikes dramatically surpassed those by manned aircraft, and only did so after Washington declared combat over at the end of 2014. Overall the air war is much smaller than it was at its height, but with politicians and military commanders looking for politically palatable ways to beat back resurgent militant groups without sending more troops, drones are now handling an unprecedented share of the bombing. 

 

Afghans battle Islamic State to stalemate

NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Dec. 8, 2015

 

Here in Nangarhar province’s Achin district, the nascent Islamic State force in Afghanistan made its greatest advances, seizing territory, battling both Taliban and government troops, and terrorizing residents who regard the group’s fighters as more brutal than other insurgents. I traveled to the mountainous areas along the Pakistan border, where Afghan soldiers fought against ISIS insurgents who they said are often better equipped and more motivated than the Taliban.

 

Combat continues for US fighter pilots in Afghanistan

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan - Dec. 4, 2015

 

American F-16 fighter pilots deployed to Afghanistan say their mission didn't change in 2015, even though the international military force here transitioned to a more advisory role. My exclusive look at one of the key American combat units in Afghanistan found that while the majority of missions are uneventful and involve nothing more than hours of bottom-numbing flying in a cramped cockpit, the F-16 pilots were still regularly involved with everything from low-flying “show-of-force” missions to dropping bombs and strafing ground targets.

 

On the ground at the battle for Kunduz

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan - Oct. 13, 2015

 

The Afghan army’s limitations in urban fighting were on full display during the two-week effort to drive the Taliban from Kunduz — a city that the insurgents overran in a single day. The Taliban’s ability to seize a major city — especially one far from their traditional southern strongholds — threatened to change the character of the war, which had been fought mostly in rural areas. 

 

One of my dispatches as the first international journalist to report while embedded with the Afghan army in Kunduz.

A desperate struggle to get Afghan injured off the front lines

NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Sept. 8, 2015

 

The lack of speedy evacuation is a tragically common problem for the rising number of Afghan police and soldiers being injured on the battlefields of Afghanistan. U.S. advisers have worked to help close the capability gap, but mostly behind the scenes, far from the battlefields where many Afghan troops say they increasingly feel alone.

 

Officially, Afghan leaders say they don’t need any help. But even a short stay among the men on the front lines of the bloody fight with Taliban and other insurgents reveals that current efforts are not enough.

Awaiting weapons, Iraq’s trained recruits go home empty-handed

IRBIL, Iraq - May 17, 2015

 

At a military base among the rolling hills of Kurdistan, thousands of volunteers trained to fight Islamic State militants just 10 miles from the group’s stronghold of Mosul. But amid a debate over whether the United States and other Western countries should send weapons directly to Iraq’s minority groups instead of channeling them through the Shiite-dominated central government, many fighters here are no closer to the battlefield than when they began drilling. Without enough weapons to fight, they are sent home after an average of three weeks of training.

Rebuilding an Iraqi army. Again.

BESMAYA, Iraq - May 2, 2015

 

With live explosives, smoke and rocket fire from helicopter gunships, American troops and their international partners are trying to give Iraqi soldiers a realistic idea of what they can expect when they take on Islamic State militants. A variety of factors, from sectarian divisions to corrupt leadership practices, led to the collapse of the Iraqi army when Islamic State fighters swept across large parts of northern and western Iraq. The disintegration of Iraq’s army was all the more striking because the U.S. had spent $25 billion rebuilding, training and equipping it. That raised questions of whether the U.S. can do a better job this time.

"I won’t give up until they are all dead”

TIKRIT, Iraq - April 28, 2015

 

Atrocities committed by Islamic State fighters spread fear through Iraq as the group swept out of neighboring Syria and occupied wide swathes of the country. As Iraqi forces gradually liberate more areas from the militant group, the destruction and death left in its wake are steeling their resolve. But the thirst for revenge threatens to make the conflict even deadlier, as everyone from government troops and militias to victims’ relatives look to right wrongs that can never be forgotten. Just weeks after Iraqi forces claimed to have liberated the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, I accompanied Shiite militia fighters to Tikrit as they picked through the blood-stained rubble and vowed revenge.

The war we leave behind

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Jan. 19, 2015

 

Western leaders have declared an end to their war in Afghanistan, but for hundreds of thousands of Afghan security forces and their remaining foreign advisers, the fighting is far from over.

 

While embedded with the Afghan soldiers and air crews continuing that fight across what was once the Taliban heartland, I gained an exclusive look at what the war looks like after the withdrawal of most international forces.

"As soon as we leave, the Taliban come back”

LAGHMAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Nov. 14, 2014

 

The slow-burning insurgency that has settled in the mountain valleys in Laghman province just a few hours from Kabul may provide a glimpse into Afghanistan’s future, one where neither the government security forces nor the insurgent groups are able, or in some cases willing, to win decisive victories or persuade the other side to negotiate.

In Afghanistan’s unfinished war, civilians pay the price

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Oct. 18, 2014

 

After more than a decade of international military involvement, the NATO-led coalition is departing, but that hasn’t coincided with a drop in violence. Civilian casualties spiked 15 percent in 2014, according to the United Nations. The rising tide of civilian deaths and injuries may become one of the lasting legacies of the unfinished war in Afghanistan.

 

NATO troops will be leaving behind thousands of Afghans maimed by a war over which they had little control, condemned to suffer long after foreign forces depart.

A handcrafted legacy of war

KABUL, Afghanistan - June 25, 2014

 

If the retreat from Kabul symbolized colonial British folly, the Afghans’ jezail firearms came to symbolize the homegrown skill and tenacity that would earn them a place among the great guerrilla fighters in history.

 

More than a century and a half later, Afghan gunsmiths are still making jezails and other rifles, many to be sold in the shops in Kabul and the bazaars of NATO bases. The gunmaking technique may be old-fashioned, but the jezail’s history offers timely lessons about counterinsurgency for modern soldiers.

Extremism casts long shadow over Russian policies

MOSCOW, Russia - Jan. 15, 2014

 

By one estimate, Russia has been the victim of nearly 2,000 terrorist attacks since 1992, the year after the Soviet Union collapsed.

 

This experience in dealing with terrorism at home is shaping Moscow’s policies regarding Syria, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East and Asia — a history that may also help define Russia’s relationship with the West for years to come.

On patrol with a modern-day 'Band of Brothers'

KHOST PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Aug. 31, 2013

 

The men of 1st Platoon are members of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, one of the most famed units in the U.S. Army thanks to the book, later made into an HBO miniseries, “Band of Brothers.”

 

The sun-baked mountains of Afghanistan are far removed from the hedgerows of Normandy and the frozen forests of Belgium where Easy Company first made a name for itself during World War II, but the soldiers today are keen to live up to that heritage.

Privately operated logistics hub fuels debate over excesses in Afghanistan

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Aug. 19, 2013

 

It’s called the Helmand Regional Distribution Center. It's a privately owned and managed forward operating base, and if its owners have their way, it could outlast most NATO bases in the country.  The base is at the heart of a debate over whether the defense contractor's logistics surge was efficient business or, as some congressional lawmakers say, a prime example of government contracts spun out of control.

 

My investigation offered a rare glimpse into the massive logistics operation behind the international military effort.

All photos by Josh Smith

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