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A Tumultuous Year, Seen Through North Korean Eyes
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A Tumultuous Year, Seen Through North Korean Eyes


A Tumultuous Year, Seen Through North Korean Eyes
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North Korea is preparing to move forward and launch a long-range rocket by the end of this month. A successful launch would erase the humiliation of its failed attempt earlier in the year. NPR's Louisa Lim has had unusual access to five North Koreans in China, all of whom left the North just in the last few months. It's almost impossible to know how events like the failed rocket launch were viewed inside the reclusive country, but today Louisa brings us a rare glimpse at life through North Korean eyes.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Within an hour of the rocket's launch in April, the world knew of its failure.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: North Korea's long range rocket fell into the sea minutes after liftoff.

LIM: A few hours later, in an unprecedented step, North Koreans knew too.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: The Earth observation satellite failed to enter orbit, the stone-faced announcer intoned on state television. This was a first: the first official admission of failure. North Koreans were stunned, shocked. 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 into.


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 the 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.


LIM: 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 three 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, twenty-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 will probably follow international standards. He won't be a frog in a well. He's braver. And 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 that this year the country would become strong and prosperous. For those who dared hope, like Mrs. Kim, the reality is soul-destroying.

MRS. KIM: (Through translator) We believed that in 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.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Those empty promises of strength and prosperity could be one factor behind this latest rocket launch. After all, the year isn't over yet and even technologically-advanced South Korea hasn't yet managed to launch a satellite. In the absence of other major achievements, North Korea's young leader may need this boost.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.


MONTAGNE: Later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, you'll hear alarming first-hand accounts of how much harder life has become for ordinary North Koreans, despite better harvests.


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

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