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A Tumultuous Year, Seen Through North Korean Eyes


This is the end of a tumultuous year for North Koreans, who in the past year have seen the death of a longtime leader, the ascension of his young son, a failed rocket launch and most recently, the successful launch of a long-range rocket. NPR's Louisa Lim recently had a rare opportunity to see the year through North Korean eyes after she met five North Koreans in China, all of whom left the north earlier this year. We bring you that story in this encore broadcast.


LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: North Koreans have been celebrating the success in triumphant broadcasts and mass rallies. For them, it raises the humiliation of the earlier failure.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Back in April, news of that failure shocked and stunned North Koreans. This was a first, the first official admission of failure. One retired soldier, Mr. Ryu, says he initially thought the government was lying. He's speaking from a safe house in China. He, like all the others I spoke to, want to return to North Korea. He's asked for his voice to be disguised for fear of the consequences.

MR. RYU: (Through Translator) For us, it was something we just couldn't believe. We wondered if it actually had been successful, but they were just saying that it hadn't been successful. We wondered how we could fail at something into which we had put so much effort.


LIM: News of failure, it seems, is no longer forbidden. The Olympic team had a heroes' welcome on their return to Pyongyang. But another interviewee, Mrs. Chon, who also asked for her voice to be changed, says this year for the first time, the country heard about their defeats, as well as their victories.

MRS. CHON: (Through Translator) Recently, all matches are broadcast whether we win or lose. When I first heard the satellite launch failed, I was heartbroken. Then people said it was possible for us to fail, when big countries also fail. The party told us not to doubt, that failure is necessary for success.


LIM: This change of attitude follows the sudden death last December of the reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il. Weeping mourners thronged the streets. But grief is mandatory. Defector groups have reported insincere mourners were punished, some by labor camp.

Kim Jong Il's 17 years in power brought untold suffering to his people, including a famine in the mid-'90s. No one knows how many died. Some estimates put the figure as high as 3 million, more than 10 percent of the population. Speaking from the relative safety of China, one man, who gives his name as Mr. Kim, describes trust in government at a low.

MR. KIM: (Through Translator) Kim Jong Il had a big impact on people's lives. There was no food, no electricity, heavy industry died. His son, Kim Jong Un, may work for the people, but the good life is now gone. The people all know that, but they cannot speak out.

KIM JONG UN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: The new leader, 20-something Kim Jong Un, has a new style. In speeches, his focus has been on improving people's lives. Even giving speeches is an innovation. His father's voice was only ever broadcast once in 17 years.


LIM: The young Kim has been feted, as he inspects new housing in Pyongyang, a new amusement park, a dolphinarium, all supposed signs of progress. At his side, in another first, a first lady, his fashionable young wife, Ri Sol Ju. Many, like Mrs. Chon, have high expectations of their new leader.

CHON: (Through Translator) He is very smart. His way of seeing things is much wider. He's studied overseas, so he'll probably follow international standards. He won't be a frog in a well. He's braver. In no time, trade with foreign countries will increase.

LIM: But skeptics point out that new housing is being built by university students, kept out of class to serve as unpaid labor. All those I spoke to had heard rumors of economic reform, but nothing definite. For years, 2012 was seen as a turning-point. The regime had promised this year the country would become strong and prosperous. For those who dared hope, like Mrs. Kim, the reality is soul-destroying.

KIM: (Through Translator) We believed that by 2012 North Korea would become a strong country, where everyone would have enough to eat, and dogs would eat rice cakes. But life is harder now. I think there's no hope.

LIM: Those promises of strength and prosperity could be one factor behind this latest launch. Even technologically-advanced South Korea hasn't yet managed to launch a satellite. To solidify his domestic position, and show strength, if not prosperity, North Korea's young leader needs this boost.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.


SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.