Kim Jong Un Says He's Building North Korea's Economy; It's Hard To Assess Progress In the wake of summits with the leaders of the U.S. and South Korea, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has directed his country to focus on growing their economy rather than emphasizing nuclear weapons.
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Kim Jong Un Says He's Building North Korea's Economy; It's Hard To Assess Progress

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Kim Jong Un Says He's Building North Korea's Economy; It's Hard To Assess Progress

Kim Jong Un Says He's Building North Korea's Economy; It's Hard To Assess Progress

Kim Jong Un Says He's Building North Korea's Economy; It's Hard To Assess Progress

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/650508395/651221385" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

In the wake of summits with the leaders of the U.S. and South Korea, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has directed his country to focus on growing their economy rather than emphasizing nuclear weapons.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump said today that a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will happen in the, quote, "not-too-distant future." Trump spoke from the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, I was just in North Korea and saw firsthand how much the message there has changed even since the first summit earlier this year, how Kim Jong Un can turn a country of 25 million on a dime.

(CHEERING)

KELLY: Thousands of North Koreans waving flags, waving balloons, in some cases weeping, tears of pride rolling down their faces as they march past North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARADE MUSIC)

KELLY: This is at a massive military parade this month in Pyongyang. I was a few feet away, planted between the tanks and the goose-stepping soldiers and the balcony above where Kim Jong Un stood watching. You could see as they crossed into his line of sight, the goose-steppers suddenly kicked higher. Their boots rang out louder against the stones of the square.

(CHEERING)

KELLY: Now, that the authoritarian leader of North Korea would be in complete command of a military parade, this is not surprising. But name another head of state who wields such complete control over everything - the military, the government, the media, the arts, the economy. Kim Jong Un controls the message for North Korea. The question we're going to explore over this next segment is what that message is because it changed this year. In April, Kim Jong Un decreed North Korea will focus all - all - its resources on building the economy. This is a turn from the path he laid out six years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM JONG UN: (Speaking Korean).

KELLY: This is Kim in 2012 delivering his very first public speech as leader, a speech in which he laid out the so-called byungjin policy, parallel advance - build the nuclear arsenal and the economy at the same time. And he did build that arsenal. In September 2017, North Korea tested its biggest nuclear weapon yet. For Kim Jong Un - mission accomplished, time now to prioritize the economy, an economy stunted since the 1970s, that completely collapsed in the 1990s - time now to measure progress in GDP, not missile tests.

We witnessed that priority over and over on our trip this month. I should mention we were escorted everywhere by government guides. And you couldn't help but notice where they did not take us - no war memorials, no military museums, nothing to do with the nuclear program, all of which have been staples of past tours for journalists. Our foreign ministry handlers were laser-focused on business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILL MACHINERY WHIRRING)

KELLY: (Unintelligible) The manager. Great.

This is the production line of the Pyongyang Silk Mill. It opened 70 years ago, same year as the founding of North Korea. We're in an enormous hall the size of several football fields. Steam is rising, and we stop to chat with one of the workers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Korean).

SIN YUN MI: (Speaking Korean).

KELLY: Her name is Sin Yun Mi, she tells me, and she keeps working while we talk, her fingers spinning over a long silk thread. She tells me she has worked here 15 years, same job, eight hours a day. She tells me she has a daughter, 3 1/2 years old.

SIN: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Generation after generation, they want - they hope - she hope her daughter also will work at this factory.

KELLY: She hopes her daughter will grow up and work in this factory one day. As I walk away, Sin calls after me.

SIN: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Our country is a very good and beautiful country. So maybe she hope you introduce our country to the world and to United States.

KELLY: Thank you for speaking with us.

One way to introduce her country to the world would be through trade. This is a central pillar of Kim Jong Un's strategy - get international sanctions lifted, economic prosperity will follow. Even with sanctions still in place you can see signs of a changing economy, of a nascent market system. We saw them amid the gleaming, mirrored shelves of perfumes and lotions at our next stop.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is the combination room where we produces the material for cream.

KELLY: Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory - along one wall they have painted a big message in Korean - let's make our cosmetics industry world-level. Inside, the hygiene is world-level. We slide on paper booties and white lab coats before they'll let us in.

Putting on the jacket and the shoes, and we're ready.

Ryu Gwang Soon the head of quality control, shows us down long glass corridors, past conveyor belts of soap. We ask her about sanctions.

RYU GWANG SOON: (Speaking Korean).

KELLY: She's dismissive, tells us in North Korea, we grow the herbs and plants, everything we need for our products.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So no impact from the sanctions.

KELLY: But would she like to be able to export to South Korea or to the West - to Europe, to America?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Korean).

RYU: (Through interpreter) So our supreme leader gave an instruction that we should beat every cosmetics in the world, our cosmetics - to make sure that happens. So that's why I want to export our cosmetics to everywhere in the world.

KELLY: They do export already to Russia and to China, and they're not against learning from the Western world.

We just walked into the exhibition hall with shelves lined with something I did not expect to see in North Korea - Chanel products, Gucci products, Estee Lauder. He said Kim Jong Un brought all this to the factory so that people here in North Korea making their own products could look and see how it's done in the rest of the world and maybe pick up a trick or two.

To be clear, you can't buy the Gucci and Chanel. They're for research only. But it's fascinating that Kim Jong Un wants North Koreans to study them. Ryu Gwang Soon, the quality control chief, says she and her co-workers are grateful.

RYU: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The workers and officials in this factory feel very thankful for the endless love of the supreme leader, comrade Kim Jong Un, on this factory. And then they're burning their hearts with - I mean, to repay their love with the high production of the high-quality cosmetics.

KELLY: Later that day, I picked up a copy of The Pyongyang Times. This is the English-language newspaper for foreigners. They hand it to you on state-run Air Koryo flights into North Korea. The lead of the centerfold spread read, today North Korea is, quote, "concentrating all its efforts on building a powerful socialist economy despite unprecedented trials and difficulties." Not a word in that spread about the nuclear program.

Now, for some perspective on all this, I spoke to Jean Lee. She opened the first American news bureau in Pyongyang in 2012 for the Associated Press. She's now director of the Korea program at the Wilson Center. And I asked her to give us some context, including on this basic question. What do we know about the state of the economy?

JEAN LEE: That is the big question. It is so murky. One thing that we have to keep in mind is that North Korea keeps that under wraps. They have not published economic figures for decades. And what we are forced to do is really analyze numbers that go in and out of the country in order to get a sense for what their GDP is. So all of this is just guesswork.

KELLY: Right.

LEE: So I think it's interesting that you got to see the inside of a factory. One thing that they've certainly been emphasizing is this concept of self-reliance. This is very important to the North Koreans and particularly important to Kim Jong Un, that his country be able to produce their own goods instead of relying on imports from China.

KELLY: Right. That was very much the message we were hearing. When we asked about sanctions, it was shrugged off, and we were told, not having an impact on us; we're doing fine, thank you very much. How much of an impact are sanctions having? Is it possible to gauge that from the outside?

LEE: So when you are in North Korea, you will see and hear the impact because one of the things that I hear quite often when I'm in Pyongyang is concern about the lack of fuel. Fuel is something that they need to have imported from China. And when they don't have fuel, they can't operate their tractors. They can't operate their machinery. They can't distribute their food. And so it's certainly something that they're very concerned about and that they rely on China for. And I do think that Kim Jong Un recognizes that he cannot lead successfully if these sanctions continue. So that's something for us to keep in mind.

KELLY: The government guide who was assigned to stick with us from the moment we cleared passport control until we cleared passport control on the other end, he told us North Korea is a rich country, it is a prosperous country, which by just about any accepted economic measure it is not. Did you have a similar experience when you worked there of North Koreans having a very different perception of their country and its economy than the rest of the world does?

LEE: I don't know if that's a matter of perception or a matter of propaganda. So I think the North Koreans are very aware that they've got a shortage of food, shortage of electricity. But what they're going to say about their country is very different. So, you know, I was there for long stretches of time through some of the harshest times of the year, and there was no denying or hiding the hardship. I lived through that myself.

KELLY: Even in Pyongyang.

LEE: Even in Pyongyang. I was freezing the whole time. I was there in the wintertime. There is a severe shortage of electricity that's chronic, a severe shortage of food. Life is hard for every North Korean even if you're elite. And they know that. They know that their country is poor compared to South Korea and the other countries around it.

KELLY: North Korea expert Jean Lee now at the Wilson Center - she and I kept chatting. After I thought we were done, I asked about the Gucci and Chanel we saw in the Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory, whether that struck her as weird - luxury, capitalist, Western products on display.

LEE: I'm so glad you pointed that out. If you do look at the educational mantra of Kim Jong Un under his regime and under his leadership, they have emphasized that you need to be aware of what's happening in the rest of the world but always come back to Korea.

KELLY: And we will conclude our coverage from North Korea tomorrow. I'm going to crack open my reporter's notebook and talk about what it's like to travel to and try to report from Pyongyang.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR'S "ALONE IN KYOTO")

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