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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We're going to get a glimpse, this morning, at one of the least visited countries on earth. Diplomats, analysts and spies have been straining to understand recent events in North Korea.

MONTAGNE: That's because of a mystery about its ailing leader. The question is whether Kim Jong Il has anointed his youngest son as successor. NPR's Louisa Lim has just returned from a five day visit to North Korea. On a visit where her moves were strictly controlled and monitored, she sought clues to what's happening.

(Soundbite of song "Socialism is our Thing")

Unidentified Woman (Singer): (Singing in Foreign language)

LOUISA LIM: On our first night in Pyongyang, the karaoke girls in the restaurant sang a jaunty song called, "Socialism is our thing." Socialism is our thing, they sang, since the people chose it, and socialism makes people's lives a paradise. That boundless, blind confidence set the tone for this heavily stage-managed trip. This was a visit designed to show North Korea as it would like to be seen.

Ms. Kim Hyang Mi (Guide): This is the grand monument of (unintelligible). Every morning I come here and pay respect.

Lim: Stirring music swelled in the background as guide Kim Hyang Mi spoke. This 60-foot bronze statue to the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, was the first stop in our whirlwind tour of the personality cult of Kim. He towers over Pyongyang, where he is omnipresent, despite his death 15 years ago. We were spun around monument after monument, all erected to glorify the man known as the great leader and his son and successor in this bizarre communist dynasty, the dear leader, Kim Jong Il.

Last year, he was reported to have suffered a stroke, sparking concern about his succession. But in Pyongyang, no one talks about that. Instead, in vast Kim Il Sung Square, tour guide O Kum Sok talked about one of the happiest days of his life. It was the day he took part in a parade, marching through this square, holding a blazing torch.

Mr. O KUM SOK (Guide): A much of it is from (unintelligible). You know why? You can get the chance to see the dear leader, Comrade Kim Jong Il. So exciting.

LIM: A spectacular fireworks display in April is rumored to have been orchestrated by Kim Jong Il's favored successor, his youngest son, 26-year-old Kim Jong Un. His name is now widely known in North Korea, compared to a year ago, but it's not mentioned in public. In five days here, only one person directly answered a question about the man known as the young general. That was Kim Sun Hee, a state-sponsored artist who spent six months capturing the fireworks display on canvas. Her words echoed the much repeated idea of single-hearted unity, melding the minds of the leader, the party and the masses.

Ms. KIM SUN HEE (State-Sponsored Artist): (Through Translator) If the young general, Kim Jong Un, organized these fireworks, it is all the minds of all the people.

LIM: Nowadays, his father, Kim Jong Il, is firmly back in control. Just five days ago, he was seen bear-hugging Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at a lavish welcoming ceremony at the airport. Some believe his succession has been put on hold. It could just be proving too divisive, according to Leonid Petrov, a North Korea watcher at Sydney University, visiting Pyongyang.

Mr. LEONID PETROV (North Korea Expert, Sydney University): Kim Jong Un has, in the past months, got great popularity among the younger representatives within the army, within the party, as opposed to the old guard. Here we can see, a sort of brewing conflict, which at the moment is not visible, but within elite they probably detected some signs of interest in reform, change, experimentation. And I think Kim Jong Il decided simply to put it on hold. The family is not interested in any change.

(Soundbite of TV ad for Teadonggang Beer)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign Language Spoken)

LIM: Moves toward economic liberalization, too, are being rolled back. This spring, North Korea aired its first television commercial ever, the Taedonggang beer. That ad was shown for a few weeks, but is no longer running. The authorities have also tightened control on local markets, limiting their opening hours and restricting who's allowed to work there. Leonid Petrov says the regime is clamping down on private enterprise, driving it underground.

Mr. PETROV: Back in 2003, Pyongyang looked like one big market. Now, we can see there's no trade on the streets. Trade and market and commercial activity is deemed to be something ideologically contaminating, something alien to the very nature of socialist society.

LIM: Instead, to reassert political control, a series of mass mobilization campaigns are under way. Loudspeakers play rousing music, while street banners trumpet the latest 100-day campaign. This was launched days after the 150-day campaign ended. It encompasses urban beautification projects, a drive to increase production and ideological education. Guide Kim Hyang Mi is confident of the campaign's success.

Ms. MI: It means within 100 days, we'll have rapid progress in economy, culture and everything.

LIM: These campaigns featured in the Mass Games, the highlight and eeriest part of our visit. Tens of thousands of performers danced in perfect unison. Behind them, thousands of schoolchildren flipped colored cards simultaneously, creating a living backdrop glorifying the achievements of the regime. Control and discipline is all; the individual is entirely subsumed by the masses.

This astonishing display serves to keep people busy, distracting them from daily hardship or dissent. For with reforms reversed, it appears North Korea is rolling back the clock as it looks toward the future.

MONTAGNE: That was NPR's Louisa Lim reporting on her five-day visit to North Korea, and she joins us now. Good morning.

LIM: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: It sounds like Kim Jong Il is not ready to pass along the reins of power, or at least it's not a given that his 26-year-old son will be the one to receive them.

LIM: Well, I guess I should start with a caveat that it's extremely difficult to know what's going on in North Korea. But the consensus does still seem to be that his 26-year-old son Kim Jong Un is the chosen one but the power transition will happen later rather than sooner.

There have been mentions of Kim Jong Un singing his praises earlier in the year, and there was a new song called "Footsteps" that had started to be heard. It was extolling this unnamed young general called Kim, and it was thought to be Kim Jong Un's promotional song.

However, (unintelligible) since August this song was no longer heard and Kim Jong Un's name is no longer mentioned. And then just a few weeks ago, Kim Yong-nam, North Korea's number two, said publicly that no successor had been named and the issue was not being discussed. One factor could be that Kim Jong Il is now looking a lot better so there is no urgency in naming his successor. He might be wary about creating two power centers.

But really, at the moment, the consensus seems to be that the son, Kim Jong Un, may be named successor in 2012, because this is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il-Sung, and at the moment that's all anybody's talking about.

MONTAGNE: And, Louisa, what about China in all of this. It shares a border with North Korea. What are its interests in terms of this succession?

LIM: Well, China's biggest concern is about the future stability of North Korea. Of course, it has this long border. It does not want to see refugees pouring over the border, and that's always at the bottom of all its calculations. But at the moment, China's focus is very much trying to get North Korea back to the table for a talk on nuclear disarmament.

It's very frustrated with North Korean behavior because China's invested this huge amount of diplomatic capital in those talks, and North Korea just walked away. And when it comes to the issue of the succession, Chinese analysts say that China's not particularly enamored with the idea of a third-generation hereditary succession. But their leverage is waning and their main concern at the moment is avoiding a collapsed state.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Louisa Lim, thanks very much.

LIM: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And you can get a glimpse of North Korea through a photo gallery at our Web site, NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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