What Will 'The Dear Leader's' Legacy Be?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died this past weekend. Host Michel Martin looks at the significance of Kim's death and what it means for the future of North Korea. She speaks with David Kang and Sandra Fahy of the Korean Studies Institute at USC.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, a Forbes.com column offering unsolicited advice for so-called poor black kids from someone who has never been one drew a furious response and some praise. We'll talk about just what got the blogosphere buzzing in just a few minutes. But first, the world is reacting to the news that North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il has died. The word came via state-run media.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: According to North Korean media reports, Kim Jong Il died from a heart attack at the age of 69, although he had clearly struggled with health problems in recent years. His family has held power in North Korea for more than 60 years. Now, there are questions about what changes if any his death might bring. But we wanted to see if we can find out what North Koreans think about this. It is, after all, one of the most isolated and repressed countries in the world. But to learn more, we are going to turn to David Kang.

He is director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC in Los Angeles. Also joining us is Sandra Fahy. She is a post-doctoral student at USC and an anthropologist whose research focuses on North Korean refugees. I welcome you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

SANDRA FAHY: Thank you.

DAVID KANG: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So, Professor Kang, if you'd start. Why is Kim Jong Il's death important to us in the United States, half a world away? And of course I'm going to ask you what the significance is for North Korea, but I would like you to set the table for us by asking why Americans should be interested in the story?

KANG: Sure. We have an interest in North Korea mainly because North Korea has a renegade nuclear weapons program that has been a thorn in the side of the U.S. and the region for almost two decades now and we'd really like that to stop. On top of that, there are human rights concerns, that North Korea has a brutal human rights record. There has been a famine there.

So in general, North Korea's been a security and humanitarian problem for decades.

MARTIN: Do you think that North Koreans are prepared for Kim Jong Il's death?

KANG: They're prepared in the sense that the regime clearly saw it coming and moved to create as smooth a transition to his son as possible, Kim Jong Un. Emotionally though, I think it will still be quite a shock for the people of North Korea because this is going to be only the third leader that they've had since 1945.

MARTIN: Now, Sandra you've interviewed dozens of North Korean refugees who defected to South Korea and Japan, and obviously this is a very complex and important story and we can't possibly wrap our hands around all of it, but can you just tell us briefly what they've told you about life in North Korea, particularly under Kim Jong Il?

FAHY: Yes. Well, I mean, the vast majority, I mean, at least I'd say 95 percent of the North Koreans I spoke with in South Korea and Japan, whenever the topic of Kim Jong Il would come up, would pair his name with an expletive. They would no longer, of course, refer to him as the Dear Leader or great leader, but they would explain to me that while they were in North Korea they really thought of Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung as kind of two pieces of the sky and they really couldn't think of things outside of that leadership and that direction.

So, I mean, it was a huge change for them when they left North Korea and arrived, you know, in third countries, as well as South Korea and Japan. So, but I mean, they're — so there was a radical re-shift in their perception of Kim Jong Il and many of them desired to bring Kim Jong Il to the International Criminal Court and as well some of them plotting for assassination and things like that.

So, I think there will be lots of mixed feelings on both sides of the DMZ with regards to Kim Jong Il's death, a lot of ambiguous feelings.

MARTIN: So, Sandra, a lot of people, I think who - to the degree that people are familiar with North Korea - and I think many Americans will remember that President George W. Bush famously referred to it as one of the axes of evil - but those who have been familiar with the deprivation, the harshness of life in North Korea, the recent famine, the — just the kind of the total grip that the government is said to have on the lives of its citizens, might wonder why there has not been any kind of an uprising before now — and of course, David Kang I'm going to ask you this question also — but Sandra, could you start? Could you just help us shed some light on this? Why have we not seen anything like an Arab Spring, for example?

FAHY: Right, and you say there hasn't been uprising until now. I mean, of course as we speak there is still not any kind of uprising in North Korea, though with the news of Kim Jong Il's death, there were guards — more guards placed along the Sino-Korean border, the Chinese-Korean border. So, perhaps they are trying to preempt any kind of uprising. But the thing we have to remember with regards to North Korea is that people are lacking in fundamental access to information.

So, they don't have Internet. They don't have any kind of social networking. There's no such thing even as a civil society, many people would argue. And as well, what we need to remember with North Korea is that when information passes into the country it's only a small little drop that comes into a much larger ideological setting that really changes the way people are interpreting those things. You know, a scholar by the name of Todorov says that facts don't come with their meaning attached. I mean, certain things can pass over across the border into North Korea but the meaning of those facts are displaced.

So, what we really need to understand as well with regards to North Korea is that the locus of power — Kim Jong Il represents power in North Korea; he represents control, he represents leadership. But with his death, I mean, that power is not undone. We have millions of mini-Kim Jong Ils who are operating throughout the country in political prison camps along the border; as soldiers, as police officers, who are carrying out the power that he represents, and that's not going to cease simply with the death of one individual.

MARTIN: Uh-huh. Now, David, if you would, the same question.

KANG: Yeah, I mean, I certainly think that it's three things. I mean, we tend to focus in America on the repressive side because there is certainly — it's a police state. And there are 100, 200,000 people in prison camps. There's a massive military and police presence. At the same time, as Sandra pointed out, this is the only game in town and so it's very hard — if you imagine people who maybe unhappy down in a village somewhere, for them to organize and get together and actually engage in an Arab Spring is extremely difficult in North Korea.

So, in many ways I think the idea that there'll be a popular uprising is really unlikely and what most of us think about is it would be some kind of palace coup or some top-down kind of problems that would eventually lead to an overthrow in North Korea. Not necessarily bottom-up with people taking to the streets.

MARTIN: We're speaking with David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC in Los Angeles. Also with us, Sandra Fahy. She's a post-doctoral student at USC and an anthropologist whose research focuses on North Korean refugees. Of course, we're speaking about the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and what it might — what that might hold for the future. David, can you just tell us briefly, how did this family come to have such a grip on North Korea, to begin with, and we do understand that his son, a third son, has been groomed as his successor.

But how did this happen to begin with?

KANG: Well, to begin with, in 1945 when the Soviet Union and the United States divided the Korean peninsula to end World War II, and so the U.S. got the southern side, the Communists got the northern side, and they installed this relatively unknown guy called Kim Il Sung as the leader of North Korea.

Now, the amazing thing isn't that he managed to be installed as a leader, but that he managed to survive, consolidate power and create a totalitarian government that was truly remarkable in the breadth and scope.

Then, he anointed his son, Kim Jong Il, in 1980 to take over, who took over in 1994 and everyone thought the son couldn't possibly survive because he wasn't his father; his father, this charismatic leader and a revolutionary leader.

But Kim Jong Il survived from 1994 till today. So they've managed through repression; they've created this myth about themselves. They've identified themselves with Korean nationalism. It's an all-encompassing view of North Korea that reflects back on this one family.

MARTIN: And, Sandra, finally, would you — just the couple of minutes that we have left. As you've been working with these North Korean refugees for some time now, what are some of the things that they've told you that — I mean, the stories that we hear out of North Korea are just completely shocking and I'm imagining, after a certain point, it takes a lot to shock you. But what are some of the things that, really, Americans should keep in mind as we're thinking about this country going forward, that these refugees have told you about their lives there, that really stick with you?

FAHY: Yes. That's a great question. I really appreciate that, actually, and it was quite difficult for me after — I mean, hundreds of hours of listening to North Koreans tell their stories. I mean, of course, when I heard the news this morning, I was quite happy, actually, to hear about the demise of Kim Jong Il.

I think the thing that we need to keep in mind, I guess, particularly Americans, one thing that they could keep in mind with regards to North Korea is that, you know, it's like any other kind of complex system. It's very difficult to understand and it's very difficult to kind of see it as black or white.

North Koreans feel an attachment to home and that attachment can be due to their family and friends and that can be divorced from politics in their minds, you know. Sometimes, when people undergo a difficult thing, they have to compartmentalize. They have to set certain things aside.

And as I mentioned before, you know, the systems which are delivering oppression inside North Korea are kind of distributed through these really confusing means. I mean, it's not always clear who is delivering the abuse of power to you, so you know, it was very difficult.

And when you have this lack of information, it's very difficult for you to say, oh, the reason I am suffering from lack of food is because my government is failing to entitle me to have access to food, or to move to another part of the country to gain access to food. So, I mean, these kind of nuances, we have to appreciate them when we think about North Korea.

MARTIN: Sandra Fahy is a post-doctoral student at USC and an anthropologist whose research focuses on North Korean refugees. David Kang is director of Korean Studies Institute at USC in Los Angeles. He joined us by phone from Los Angeles. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

FAHY: Thank you.

KANG: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, many kids dream of a college scholarship and when a philanthropist told dozens of kids in a low-income suburb of Washington, D.C. that he would foot the bill for their college tuition, jaws dropped. That was in 1988. How those scholarships made a difference might surprise you. We'll hear more coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.