The Forgotten War President Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un are preparing to meet for a second nuclear summit. What has fueled the hostility between these two countries for decades? On this episode, we look back at the tangled history.
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The Forgotten War

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The Forgotten War

The Forgotten War

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RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

We're going to start this episode with the story of a doctor in North Korea.

BARBARA DEMICK: She was very loyal to the North Korean regime. She wanted to join the party. And she really was a true believer. Her father was a true believer. And she was working as a pediatrician and was in a terrible situation personally. She had nothing to eat. She was on the verge of starvation. The children she was treating in the hospital were starving. People would bring in their kids, who looked like they were on the verge of death. So very reluctantly, she decided to cross the Tumen River into China.

And she had no intention of defecting. She loved her country. But she wanted to go out and get some food and maybe some money to bring back. And she walked across this narrow river into China. It was a time of year when the river was partially frozen. And she fell through the ice. And she was wet. And she came out to the Chinese side, and she was, you know, still dripping wet with water. And she walked around. And she saw a farmhouse, and the gate was slightly open. And she saw, in the courtyard, a dish with a little bit of rice and some scraps of meat in it.

And she was stunned because she hadn't eaten rice in years. She couldn't remember the last time she had meat. And she realized that that food had been left out for the dog. And she said at that moment she was only a few hours out of North Korea. She realized that dogs in China eat better than doctors in North Korea. And she realized too, at that same moment, that everything she had ever been taught was a lie. Her whole life had been a lie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Kim Jong Un, unleashing an ominous warning.

KIM JONG UN: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: "The whole of the U.S. mainland is within our firing range. It's not a threat, but a reality."

BARACK OBAMA: North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons is a path that leads only to more isolation.

GEORGE W. BUSH: States like these constitute an axis of evil.

BILL CLINTON: South Korea continues to face a threat of a million troops, most of them massed near its border.

RONALD REAGAN: The only thing it can produce well is repression and military might.

ABDELFATAH: You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Where we go back in time...

ABDELFATAH: ...To understand the present.

ARABLOUEI: Hey, I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And on this episode, uncovering North Korea.

ABDELFATAH: It seems like there's a new development every other week in this ongoing saga between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. And it's left me, at least, feeling pretty uneasy.

ARABLOUEI: It's really hard to pin down exactly where we stand at any given moment. One minute, we're fearing nuclear war. The next we see images of Trump shaking hands with Kim Jong Un. It's all really unpredictable and up in the air. And that's partly because beyond the news headlines, we have very little understanding of North Korea's motivations.

ABDELFATAH: Like, why are they so hell-bent on having nuclear weapons, for example? What in their history has made them so authoritarian and aggressive towards the outside world - especially the U.S.?

ARABLOUEI: So to answer those questions, we delve into that history. And it turns out that the U.S. played a big part in shaping the Korea we know today and, in the process, caused a lot of destruction.

ABDELFATAH: We're going to take you through three scenes in Korean history to explore how the two Koreas split, ended up on completely different paths and the role the U.S. played in all that.

ARABLOUEI: The divorce from hell.

ABDELFATAH: An unforgotten war.

ARABLOUEI: And the arduous march.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Part I, the divorce from hell.

ABDELFATAH: Now, the story of how Korea became two countries is a really complicated tale with tons of subplots, mystery and characters. But there's one guy you've probably never heard of that we're kind of obsessed with now.

BLAINE HARDEN: Donald Nichols was very often in the room when torture was taking place. He was in the room when heads - severed heads - were delivered to army headquarters. I found a photograph of Nichols looking down at a head in a bucket that had been delivered from one of the battlefields of this civil war that Americans never ever paid any attention to.

ABDELFATAH: You heard that right, a head in a bucket. But before we explain what that's about, we have to rewind to when our story begins, at the end of World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The battleship Missouri, 53,000-ton flagship of Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet, becomes the scene of an...

ABDELFATAH: September 2, 1945, onboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay just weeks after the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Japan surrendered to the Allies. It was a happy occasion, at least for the Allied powers.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: General Yoshijiro Umezu of the Imperial General Staff...

ABDELFATAH: But for Japan...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The surrender documents by which Japan agrees to lay down arms completely...

ABDELFATAH: ...It was a bitter defeat.

ARABLOUEI: And meanwhile, in North Korea - well, at this point, there is no North Korea. The Korean Peninsula was still one country that had been occupied by Japan since 1910. And as Japan's rule over Korea ends, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIAN MYERS: To make a long story short, what happened was that the Soviet Union was, of course, interested in installing a pro-Soviet communist government in Seoul that would rule over the entire peninsula. And the Americans wanted a pro-American administration installed in Seoul.

ABDELFATAH: This is Brian Myers.

MYERS: A professor in the international studies department at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea.

ABDELFATAH: And what Brian's saying is that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union wanted influence over Korea. So they agreed to a compromise.

ARABLOUEI: A dividing line drawn completely at random at the 38th parallel.

MYERS: And almost immediately, this division of the country along the 38th parallel began hardening into permanency.

ABDELFATAH: Creating two countries, North Korea and South Korea.

ARABLOUEI: And on each side, leaders backed by the Soviets and the Americans came into power. In North Korea, the Soviets picked 36-year-old Kim Il Sung, a former guerrilla leader who'd fought in the Soviet Army during World War II. He was someone they trusted.

HARDEN: But besides being a compliant puppet, he had some real credibility with the entire population of the Korean Peninsula.

ARABLOUEI: This is Blaine Harden. He's written a bunch of books on North Korea. The newest one is called "King Of Spies."

HARDEN: Because he had fight against the hated Japanese in the 1930s, he was thought of as a freedom fighter, a leader, a true Korean patriot.

ARABLOUEI: But Kim Il Sung was not interested in being a Soviet puppet.

HARDEN: He was a demagogic genius. He had this ability to intuit the anxieties, the anger of the Korean people and turn that into his own power. It allowed him to develop his own independent power base in North Korea, separate from the Soviets.

ARABLOUEI: So in the first few years after partition, Kim Il Sung basically became the undisputed leader of North Korea and set out to separate his power from the Soviets who put him there.

ABDELFATAH: Meanwhile in South Korea, the U.S. propped up 73-year-old Syngman Rhee, someone they hoped would be a reliable ally.

HARDEN: Much as the North Koreans imported Kim Il Sung from the Soviet Far East, the Americans imported a puppet who had been living in the United States for nearly four decades. And he was a very impressive person.

ABDELFATAH: He studied at Harvard.

HARDEN: A master's in history.

ABDELFATAH: Got a Ph.D. in international law from Princeton.

HARDEN: And he had spent nearly three decades lobbying Congress in the name of an independent Korea.

ABDELFATAH: So naturally the U.S. thought he'd be a cooperative partner. But they overlooked one glaring personality trait.

HARDEN: He was a strong-willed, headstrong nationalist who wanted to do what Kim Il Sung wanted to do, which was control all of the Korean Peninsula himself with arms and ideological window dressing from the United States.

ABDELFATAH: So at this point, North and South Korea are being run by two tyrannical leaders. And both wanted the same thing, to rule over the entire Korean Peninsula, which isn't surprising because North Koreans and South Koreans continued to see themselves as one people.

ARABLOUEI: But the big difference between these leaders is that Syngman Rhee was not popular in the south.

HARDEN: In fact, there was a very large percentage of the population that didn't want Syngman Rhee to control the place and make it an American puppet state. So in the late '40s, Syngman Rhee went to war - quite literally - against his own population.

ARABLOUEI: Syngman Rhee jailed his political rivals and ordered thousands of killings.

HARDEN: He and his police and his army killed at least 100,000 opponents, many of them women and children.

ARABLOUEI: All in an effort to get rid of anyone who he thought opposed him and, ultimately, to keep power.

ABDELFATAH: And to keep power, Syngman Rhee needed help from - who else? - the United States. And for a time, most of that support came through one guy. Now we're ready to tell the strange story of Sergeant Donald Nichols.

HARDEN: Donald Nichols was a U.S. Air Force spy. And he went to the Korean Peninsula in 1946 - very early - when the American military had no expertise on the Korean Peninsula at all.

ABDELFATAH: Nichols was sent to South Korea to spy on Syngman Rhee for the Americans. But his spy schooling had consisted of just a few months of training.

HARDEN: That training as sort of a young counterintelligence agent was the only real formal education he'd had.

ABDELFATAH: He dropped out of school in seventh grade.

HARDEN: So when he met Syngman Rhee in 1946, Donald Nichols had a seventh-grade education and a background of petty theft.

ABDELFATAH: The story gets pretty weird around this point because Syngman Rhee took a serious liking to Nichols, which is odd because these two guys couldn't have been more different.

HARDEN: Donald Nichols was 6-foot-2, weighed about 260 pounds, drank Coca-Cola and ate chocolate bars obsessively. Syngman Rhee was an aesthetic-looking, very thin, very brainy South Korean intellectual.

ABDELFATAH: Plus, Syngman Rhee was 48 years older. But despite all that, they had a very close relationship.

HARDEN: Syngman Rhee called Nichols his son, and Donald Nichols called Syngman Rhee his father.

ABDELFATAH: They both served a purpose for the other. Syngman Rhee saw Nichols as a sort of conduit of information to and from the U.S. military. And Nichols saw Syngman Rhee as the ultimate inside source. Nichols served alongside Syngman Rhee for 11 years.

HARDEN: Which is an astonishingly long time for an intelligence agent based in one country.

ABDELFATAH: And during that time, Nichols' main job was supposed to be watching Syngman Rhee and reporting everything back to Washington. But that's not exactly what he did because most of the time he just looked the other way. And some accounts even suggest that he might have carried out killings himself.

HARDEN: Nichols was very often in the room when torture was taking place. He was in the room when heads, severed heads, were delivered to army headquarters. I found a photograph of Nichols looking down at a head in a bucket that had been delivered from one of the battlefields of this civil war that Americans never ever paid any attention to.

ARABLOUEI: I mean, this is pretty unbelievable - right? - like, an American spy going to South Korea to help Syngman Rhee in a murderous dictatorship. It's really mind-blowing.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, and maybe Nichols went rogue. Like, maybe the U.S. military didn't know about his actions at all. Or maybe they turned a blind eye. Like, after all, this is happening during the Cold War.

ARABLOUEI: Right.

ABDELFATAH: So it wouldn't be the only time the U.S. supported a shady leader in order to fight off a threat like communism.

ARABLOUEI: And what's really wild is that in these early days, you know, after the, quote-unquote, "divorce," the Soviets were better at supporting the North than the U.S. was at supporting the South.

ABDELFATAH: Like, if I were to travel back in time and put money on which of these two countries would turn out better, I'd probably have gone with North Korea.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, I'd take that bet.

ABDELFATAH: But then in the summer of 1950, everything changes again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Part II, an unforgotten war.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE, EXPLOSIONS)

ARABLOUEI: On June 25, 1950, Kim Il Sung decided to take matters into his own hands and forcibly reunite North and South Korea. Here's Blaine Harden again.

HARDEN: He started the war with Stalin's help and tried to become the boss of the Korean Peninsula.

ARABLOUEI: And he sent nearly 75,000 North Korean troops into South Korea. Intense fighting broke out, and suddenly the Koreas were in an all-out civil war.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

ABDELFATAH: Pretty quickly, the U.S. decided it had to step in and rally the United Nations to throw in its support.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY TRUMAN: Korea is a small country thousands of miles away, but what is happening there is important to every American.

ABDELFATAH: President Truman and other American officials were worried that if they didn't intervene, the conflict would escalate, spreading communism further into Asia and possibly igniting a third world war. At first, Syngman Rhee's troops were on the defensive, getting beat by the disciplined North Korean army.

ARABLOUEI: And North Korean troops managed to capture South Korea's capital, Seoul. But by the end of that summer...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMAN: We know that the cost of freedom is high.

ARABLOUEI: The game was reset.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMAN: But we are determined to preserve our freedom, no matter what the cost.

ABDELFATAH: South Korean forces, backed by the U.S. and the U.N., recaptured Seoul. And then President Truman ordered American coalition troops to go on the offensive to liberate North Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The 1st Marin Air Wing pilots slammed their rockets right into those dug-in commies

ABDELFATAH: And they began to push the North Korean troops back further and further. Kim Il Sung was outmatched.

HARDEN: He was an incompetent military commander and was defeated, routed by the Americans and the South Koreans and would have lost his country. The very existence of North Korea was a question without Mao.

ABDELFATAH: Mao Zedong, or Chairman Mao as he's often referred to, was the leader of China at the time. He decided to intervene on behalf of the North Koreans and the Soviets because the Americans were getting way too close to the Chinese-North Korean border, and he didn't want the fighting to spill over into China. So he rallied his troops...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAO ZEDONG: (Speaking Chinese).

ABDELFATAH: And sent them into North Korea, and they managed to push the Americans back to the 38th parallel.

HARDEN: And everyone was agreed, at that point in 1953, to declare a draw. And that's where the war went into suspended animation. It didn't end with a peace treaty. There is still no peace treaty. It's an armistice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: You know, often lost in the history of who won which battle and who gained more land is the impact of the war on the people of Korea. It was devastating for both sides. In South Korea, hundreds of thousands died, and the capital, Seoul, was nearly destroyed.

ABDELFATAH: And as bad as the devastation was in South Korea, it was significantly worse in North Korea.

VICTOR CHA: Carpet bombing by the United States on a level that had never been seen before. There was more bombing that took place in North Korea than was dropped by the United States in all of World War II.

ARABLOUEI: This is Victor Cha.

CHA: Professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

ARABLOUEI: And you might recognize his name because he was under consideration to become the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea. But then he got into a public debate with the Trump administration over its North Korea policy.

ABDELFATAH: Anyway, what Victor Cha is describing is pretty incredible. North Korea was essentially reduced to rubble.

HARDEN: Some American estimates say that up to 20 percent of the population of North Korea were killed by bombs from American aircraft.

ARABLOUEI: I mean, you don't easily forget something like that.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. Everyone in the country probably knew someone who died in the war, and the political consequences were also really massive.

CHA: You basically had leveled the infrastructure on both sides of the peninsula, and so they were essentially starting from scratch all over again.

ABDELFATAH: Kim Il Sung, who had started the war, somehow managed to use the war and its aftermath as a convenient narrative against the Americans.

HARDEN: The story basically goes, remember those Americans? They bombed our country and killed your grandma, and they're going to do it again unless you allow us to protect you.

ABDELFATAH: But that protection came at a certain price.

HARDEN: There won't be much freedom. There won't be much information. There won't be much electricity or food. But we will protect you against the Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: What's so interesting and kind of sad about all this is that, when we were reading up on this war - what's the nickname we kept coming across?

ARABLOUEI: The forgotten war.

ABDELFATAH: Right. But that's often how it's referred to in the U.S.

ARABLOUEI: Right.

ABDELFATAH: Because it was kind of, like, a blip on the U.S.'s radar. But in both North and South Korea, it was obviously not easily forgotten.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. I mean, the North Koreans lost 20 percent of their entire population. That's like if the U.S. were to lose the entire population of Texas and California.

ABDELFATAH: That's massive.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, that perceived threat of the U.S. coming back to kill grandma became a central part of the Kim regime's propaganda and also fueled its decades-long quest to become a nuclear power - you know, to protect itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NORTH KOREAN SOLDIERS: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: These are not the jackboots of Adolf Hitler's Nuremberg.

UNIDENTIFIED NORTH KOREAN SOLDIERS: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: This is North Korea, a citadel of anti-Americanism and home of the world's most regimented society.

ABDELFATAH: OK, now we're going to fast forward through the next few decades to give you a sense of how the war affected the future of North and South Korea. It set them on completely opposite paths. At first, both sides rebuilt slowly. South Korea went through president after president after president, while in North Korea, Kim Il Sung continued to rule as supreme leader.

ARABLOUEI: And up until the 1980s, they were kind of in a similar boat. But then South Korea started making big changes that allowed them to be open for business with the rest of the world. Their economy grew rapidly. And by the late '80s, life in South Korea was starting to improve.

ABDELFATAH: In contrast, North Korea was a completely closed economy, where food, clothes, jobs and, maybe most importantly, information, all came from the government. Kim Il Sung, still fearing another attack from the U.S., also poured resources into the country's military. And with the help of the Soviet Union, he established its nuclear program.

ARABLOUEI: But one moment in 1991 threatened Kim Il Sung's grip on power.

ABDELFATAH: The Soviet Union, their main source of aid and raw materials, collapsed.

ARABLOUEI: Then, in 1994, something else happens that shakes North Korea to its core.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: (Speaking Korean).

ARABLOUEI: Kim Il Sung dies. In the official North Korean state TV announcement, the newscaster is visibly shaken.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: (Speaking Korean).

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, she can barely speak. And footage of the funeral shows thousands and thousands of people crying, wailing even.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED FUNERAL ATTENDEES: (Wailing, yelling in Korean).

ABDELFATAH: As they rock back and forth on the ground...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED FUNERAL ATTENDEES: (Wailing, yelling in Korean).

ABDELFATAH: Screaming in anguish for Kim Il Sung.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED FUNERAL ATTENDEES: (Wailing, screaming in Korean).

ARABLOUEI: It's kind of unnerving to watch.

ABDELFATAH: And then, for the first time since its founding, North Korea gets a new leader.

ARABLOUEI: Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il. And under him, North Korea would see its darkest days since the Korean War.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Part III, the Arduous March.

ABDELFATAH: Now we've arrived at the last part of the story. And we want to give you a better understanding of contemporary North Korea from the inside. You'll even hear from someone who actually lived there. But backing up, let's set the stage first.

It's the 1990s. And remember, South Korea is on its way to becoming an economic powerhouse. Companies like Hyundai, LG and Samsung are starting to really take off. And life in South Korea is becoming better and better.

ARABLOUEI: But meanwhile, North Korea is struggling to stay afloat after the fall of the Soviet Union. Plus, a perfect storm of misfortune is heading their way.

ABDELFATAH: And the only way that new leader Kim Jong Il is managing to keep the country together is to make it seem like the rest of the world is even worse off than them.

DEMICK: And that's why the North Korean government has to keep the country hermetically sealed. You know, no news is good news for them. Any glimpse they have of the outside world is very corrosive.

ABDELFATAH: This is Barbara Demick. She told us that story we opened with about the doctor who fled North Korea in the 1990s. And Barbara's interviewed a lot of other North Korean defectors for a book she wrote called "Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).

DEMICK: "Nothing To Envy" comes from a very popular North Korean song that goes - I'll spare you the singing - we have nothing to envy in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).

DEMICK: And it's a song that every schoolchild sings. And, you know, the point is that North Koreans think that they are the luckiest people in the world. This is the core of the regime's propaganda. It's also the underlying lie of the regime, that they have nothing to envy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).

ABDELFATAH: We wanted to really understand what life was like at that time in North Korea.

HYEONSEO LEE: Can you hear me?

ARABLOUEI: Yes, we can hear you. Can you hear - can you hear me?

ABDELFATAH: So we called up Hyeonseo Lee. She is in South Korea, and the connection wasn't great.

ARABLOUEI: Hyeonseo was a teenager in the 1990s, living in a town in North Korea near the Chinese border.

ABDELFATAH: And in a lot of ways, her story mirrors what was happening in North Korea during that decade.

HYEONSEO: I was living the military base because my father was a military officer.

ARABLOUEI: Hyeonseo's family was middle-class, which means unlike most people in North Korea, they weren't starving.

ABDELFATAH: The lower class made up an estimated 60 to 70 percent of North Korea's population. And the way the Kim regime kept the middle and lower classes in line started in school.

HYEONSEO: You memorized our dear leaders' history. It's like the Bible...

ABDELFATAH: And then, every Saturday...

HYEONSEO: Every Saturday in North Korea, in the afternoon, all of the country...

ABDELFATAH: The whole country gets together to perform something called a self-criticism session.

HYEONSEO: Well, during this criticism session, we have to criticize somebody else.

ABDELFATAH: It's one way the regime keeps tabs on people and also prevents them from getting too close to one another.

HYEONSEO: So in North Korea, honestly, we couldn't believe each other. Only I could believe my mom and my father because...

ARABLOUEI: They can't believe anyone because in North Korea, everyone is suspicious of everyone else. And that fear is reinforced by things like public executions and political prison camps.

HYEONSEO: Where more than 100,000 people are just suffering in the prison camps.

ARABLOUEI: But despite all that, they were told that people in the U.S. and South Korea were much worse off than them.

HYEONSEO: So we thought even though we were suffering in North Korea, we thought that was the paradise.

ARABLOUEI: A paradise.

ABDELFATAH: This all plays into the core message of North Korean propaganda since the end of the Korean War, that the U.S. would return again to destroy them and that they must be ready when that happens.

HYEONSEO: We were so brainwashed. I mean, the North Korean people are - even until today, they are the most brainwashed human beings on this planet

ABDELFATAH: And Hyeonseo was one of those brainwashed people for a long time. But in 1997, when she was 17 years old, the country was in the midst of a devastating famine known as the Arduous March. By some estimates, 3.5 million people died from the famine in a country of 22 million. And that's when Hyeonseo began to realize that North Korea wasn't a paradise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Speaking Chinese).

ABDELFATAH: Late at night, under the cover of darkness, Hyeonseo would retreat to her room to watch Chinese soap operas.

HYEONSEO: And then I just blocked my window with extra blankets to prevent the light.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (Speaking Chinese).

ABDELFATAH: Amid all the chaos created by the famine, media from the outside world - things like movies and TV - got into the country through the same smuggling network that was bringing in food and clothes, things that were desperately needed.

ARABLOUEI: As a result, outside ideas began trickling into North Korea. And for some, those ideas made them realize that they wanted out. So all of a sudden, a lot of people were trying to escape North Korea.

ABDELFATAH: And Hyeonseo Lee was one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HYEONSEO: So my story was the - crossing border was not difficult for me.

ABDELFATAH: Hyeonseo crossed the border into China. And thanks to her dad's military connections plus the fact that she lived so close to the border, Hyeonseo made it across pretty easily.

HYEONSEO: It was wintertime.

ABDELFATAH: It was the middle of winter. The river was frozen over. And Hyeonseo just walked across the ice into China. And in that moment, she realized her life would never be the same again.

HYEONSEO: I was trying to find the real truth. I didn't know the price.

ABDELFATAH: While in China, she lived in fear that the authorities would find her. In fact, a lot of defectors had a pretty drastic plan in case they were caught.

HYEONSEO: In case if they were caught in China, they are bringing the poison or knife.

ABDELFATAH: Poison or knife.

ARABLOUEI: Defectors would rather kill themselves than be caught by Chinese law enforcement and sent back to North Korea. So Hyeonseo learned Chinese and did her best to blend in. Meanwhile, she had no idea if her family was OK back in North Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM: (Speaking Korean).

ARABLOUEI: In 2011, 14 years after she left North Korea, Hyeonseo was finally reunited with her family in South Korea. And that same year, Kim Jong Il dies. And his son, Kim Jong Un, becomes the new supreme leader of North Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM: (Speaking Korean).

(APPLAUSE)

ARABLOUEI: So Hyeonseo is safe in South Korea, reunited with her family. But meanwhile, this new leader emerges in North Korea and picks up the mantle of his father and grandfather, both in his rhetoric and his actions.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, Kim Jong Un has expanded the nuclear program. He uses a lot of the same internal propaganda that they used. He's even killed off political dissidents, including his own family members.

ARABLOUEI: And it's brought us to this moment where we find the U.S. and North Korea in the same dynamic that they've been in for decades now. North Korea makes erratic threats. They think the U.S. is out to get them. And the history of American aggression continues to be the foundation of their propaganda.

ABDELFATAH: Like any good dictatorship, there is a mix of truth and lies. I mean, the Korean War, in more ways than one, has never really been resolved. And that's important to remember because ever since, both countries have been stuck in a cycle of antagonism.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: So when there's news of another summit and we see Trump and Kim Jong Un shaking hands, yeah, it's possible the relationship is turning a corner. But it's not going to be easy to move past this long history of antagonism.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me and Rund.

ABDELFATAH: Our team includes...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

JORDANA HOCHMAN, BYLINE: Jordana Hochman.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

MICHELLE LANZ, BYLINE: Yo, yo, yo. It's Michelle Lanz.

N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: N'jeri Eaton.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann.

ARABLOUEI: Chris Turpin.

ABDELFATAH: Alison MacAdam.

ARABLOUEI: Jeff Rogers.

ABDELFATAH: Nishant Dahiya.

ARABLOUEI: And Candice Kortcamp.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: And let's keep the conversation going. If you have an idea or thoughts on the episode, hit us up on Twitter @throughlineNPR. Or send us an email to throughline@npr.org.

ABDELFATAH: If you like the show, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts.

ARABLOUEI: And tell all your friends to subscribe.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening. That was too emphatic, too desperate.

ARABLOUEI: What, tell all your friends to subscribe?

ABDELFATAH: And me, too. I was like, please, leave us a review.

ARABLOUEI: All right, all right. Just go from review (ph).

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