Copyright ©2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. In North Korea, the purge continues. Leader Kim Jong-un shocked the world last month when he accused his uncle and mentor Jang Sung-taek of treason and had him executed. Now Kim's government is rounding up officials once loyal to Jang, but this purge is having a chilling effect on ties with China because Jang was in charge of trade with North Korea's neighbor and longtime ally. NPR's Anthony Kuhn traveled to the border between them and filed this report.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: A Chinese freight train rumbles across a bridge over the Yalu River and into North Korea. Northeast China is just about North Korea's only point of contact with the outside world. To many Chinese, the place is a rust belt. But to the few North Koreans lucky enough to make it, a visit here can be a mind-expanding experience.

A 58-year-old woman who came to visit her relatives says that on her first visit to China, she was dazzled by the affluence and abundance that she saw. She and the other North Koreans I spoke to requested anonymity so as to avoid severe punishment back home.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Through translator) What I found here was unimaginable. So much food here is wasted. The roads, the cars, the electricity. It's always bright, whether it's night or day. I wondered, where is all this electricity produced? In North Korea, it's very dark at night, you can't do anything and it's very lonely. And even if you tell people, it sounds like a dream. They won't listen to you, or they'll wonder if you're telling the truth.

KUHN: But she says that in North Korea, it's dangerous to talk too much about her experiences in China. So when she returns home, she says she takes the amazement and the envy she felt and she hides them in her heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

KUHN: On Monday, citizens in Pyongyang marched through the streets, pledging support for Kim Jong-un's policies outlined in a New Year's address. Kim said in the address that the purge of his uncle had strengthened the unity of the ruling Worker's Party. In addition to charges of treason, Jang Sung-taek was accused of selling North Korean resources, such as coal, to China cheaply. Clearly, on one level, Jang's purge was an internal power struggle.

But Cai Jian, a Korea expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, says that it was also, in part, a swipe at China.

CAI JIAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Jang's purge, he says, reflects the fact that North Korea does not want to see China wield excessive political or economic influence over it, and the purge may be a move to weaken China's control and influence. Cai says that for the moment, the purge may appear to have helped Kim consolidate his rule, but it also reveals a split over economic policies.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

KUHN: Back at the border, one former North Korean truck driver, who asked that we disguise his voice says that North Koreans are angry that the coal they use to heat their homes became more expensive as coal exports to China increased.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) Jang should have sold the leftover coal that our people don't use. He's a bad person. How could a good person sell coal to China for a few cents when North Koreans are freezing in their homes? The people think that it's right that he died.

KUHN: A North Korean woman who works in a Chinese department store, who also asked for her voice to be altered, says that political tensions appear to have taken a toll on border trade in recent months.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Through translator) There are fewer North Korean customers buying Chinese goods and there are fewer products going into North Korea. But I didn't notice any changes. After all, how could North Korea survive without trade with China?

KUHN: The former truck driver says there's still a market for Chinese goods because there's nothing else to buy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) The North Korean economy is now paralyzed. There are no government factories left working. Metal and coal mines, factories which earn foreign exchange and those that make soybean paste and other foodstuffs, those are the only ones left running.

KUHN: Fudan University's Cai Jian says that Chinese find North Korea's hereditary Kim dynasty rather anachronistic. But they've decided that the stability of the Kim regime is in China's strategic interest so they will continue to support it at all costs. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

Copyright © 2014 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.