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A Tumultuous Year, Seen Through North Korean Eyes

NPR icon by Louisa Lim
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North Korea is preparing to launch a long-range rocket as it rounds off a tumultuous year marked by the sudden death of leader Kim Jong Il last December, the ascension of his 20-something son, and the humiliating failure of a rocket launch in April.

NPR has recently interviewed five North Koreans in a northern Chinese city, gaining a rare glimpse of that eventful year through North Korean eyes. They were all visiting China legally, having left North Korea within the past few months.

Few North Koreans can forget the electrifying moment the stone-faced announcer on state-run television delivered a message they had never heard before: the first ever official admission of failure.

"The earth observation satellite failed to enter orbit," the announcer acknowledged bluntly, as she admitted April's long-range rocket launch had not succeeded.

For many North Koreans, even the very possibility of failure was shocking, stunning, literally unbelievable.

"For us, it was something we just couldn't believe," a retired North Korean soldier who gave his name as Mr. Ryu tells NPR. He even privately questioned whether the government might have been lying. "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."

In another example of this trend of acknowledging difficulties, North Korea on Monday admitted there was a "technical deficiency" in the first-stage control engine module of its rocket. It's now extending the launch window by another week, until Dec. 29. The official news agency said technicians were "pushing forward" with preparations, indicating a delay, rather than a cancellation."

Changes After Kim Jong Il's Death

Talking to reporters is risky for North Koreans, so NPR is using only the surnames of the people — all urban elites in their 50s — interviewed for this story.

Another interviewee, Mrs. Chon, remembers when she first heard the satellite launch had failed.

"I was heartbroken," she says. "Then 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."

That message has been reinforced by state-run television, which has begun broadcasting sports events where the national team is beaten.

"[Before] we were never told if we lost sports matches," says Mrs. Chon. "Recently all matches are broadcast, whether we win or lose. Everybody watches them, because they appear on television."

This is just one of the changes the country has undergone following the sudden death last December of the reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, reportedly of a heart attack. Despite snow blanketing the ground, weeping mourners thronged the streets, wailing. Grief was mandatory, according to defector groups, with insincere mourners punished by as much as six months in labor camp.

Some of those I spoke to admitted to feeling ambivalent toward Kim Jong Il, or even openly hostile, blaming him for their suffering. His 17 years in power included a famine in the mid-1990s, which killed as many as 3 million people, more than 10 percent of the population.

"Kim Jong Il had a big impact on people's lives," says a man who gives his name as Mr. Kim. "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."

High Expectations For New Leader

Kim's mantle has been inherited by his son, Kim Jong Un, who is not yet 30. His leadership style is markedly different from his father's, showing himself to be more personable, as he cuddles babies and poses for pictures with families.

The younger Kim has been seen on public engagements with his young, fashionable wife, Ri Sol Ju, the first North Korean first lady to play a high-profile public role. In fact, some of the people interviewed by NPR say they were thunderstruck that Ri actually touched her husband in public, even walking arm-in-arm with him.

Kim Jong Un has visited new housing in Pyongyang, a new amusement park, a dolphinarium, all supposed signs of progress. Crucially for North Koreans, he's turned his focus to livelihood issues, and has repeatedly vowed to improve people's lives.

There are high expectations of their new leader, who attended international school in Switzerland as a boy.

"He is very smart," says Mrs. Chon. "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. In no time, trade with foreign countries will increase."

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, including a proposed system that might allow farmers to keep more of their harvests to themselves, but so far there's been no confirmation.

"There were expectations that reforms might be announced during the Supreme People's Assembly meeting this autumn ... but everyone was very disappointed," notes a woman named Mrs. Ju.

A Soul-Destroying Reality

For years, 2012 was seen as a turning point. The regime had promised that this year — the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Jung Un's grandfather and the country's founder, Kim Il Sung — was the year North Korea would become "strong and prosperous." For those who still dared hope, like Mrs. Kim, the reality is soul-destroying.

"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," she concludes with a sigh.

Those repeated promises of a "strong and prosperous country" 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 launched a satellite. In the absence of other major achievements, North Korea's young leader may need this boost.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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