North Koreans' Attitudes Of The U.S.

Jan 7, 2018
Originally published on January 8, 2018 11:06 pm

The relationship between President Trump and Kim Jong Un made headlines again. NPR's Michel Martin talks with North Korea expert Jean H. Lee of the Wilson Center about how people on the Korean peninsula view the U.S.

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The Olympics will be the focus of talks between North and South Korea on Tuesday. It's the first time the two countries will meet since early 2016. Now this comes after a week when President Trump continued to make Twitter threats against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. We wanted to understand how people living in both North and South Korea are viewing the escalating rhetoric, especially in the weeks before the Olympics. We're joined now by Jean H. Lee. She's a North Korea expert at the Wilson Center. She also opened the Pyongyang bureau in North Korea for the Associated Press in 2012, and she is one of the few Western journalists who spent quite a lot of time in the country. Jean, welcome to the program.

JEAN H. LEE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So we wanted to start with the conversations that people on the Korean Peninsula are having. What do they think about the back and forth between Kim Jong Un and Trump?

LEE: The back and forth is unsettling. South Koreans are somewhat used to these tensions. This tension has been going on for decades. They don't necessarily think that North Korea is going to strike. But what they don't know is whether or not Donald Trump is going to strike.

MARTIN: Does the proximity to the upcoming Winter Olympics play any role in how people in South Korea are feeling about all this?

LEE: The South Korean government, I can tell you, is very nervous about whether provocations will happen during the Olympics. And the South Korean government is doing what it can to try to assure tourists and athletes that it'll be a secure, and safe and successful Olympics because there certainly have been questions about whether some countries should hold their athletes back. And it's also another chance for South Korea to show the world that they are a developed country despite the security situation. So they are doing what they can. The South Korean government certainly wants to bring about a certain sense of peace, and that's why we have these talks coming up this week, and that's very important obviously to the South Koreans.

MARTIN: I want to hear about that in a minute, but I did want to ask you about North Korea because I think the sense that most people have is that North Korea is a country that's so closed off from the rest of the world that information doesn't get in. Do you have any sense of what people in North Korea know about all of this? Do they know about President Trump's tweets referring to, quote, "Little Rocket Man"? Do you have any sense of how this relationship is being portrayed in North Korea?

LEE: So most North Koreans don't have access to the Internet. The government does maintain very tight control over the flow of information going in and out of North Korea. And the regime feeds their people this narrative, and they're telling their people, yes, we know you're going without power, without food, but we have to do this in order to survive. And the military drills that the U.S. holds with the South Koreans - sending bombers up the coast - and the rhetoric from the U.S. president all feed into that narrative. So while the North Koreans aren't seeing the tweets, they are getting the message from their propaganda that look at this - the U.S. president is threatening us. And so we need to pour our resources into these nuclear weapons to defend you.

MARTIN: Can you give us a sense of what North and South Korea will be talking about during these - this planned conversation on Tuesday?

LEE: The main discussion will be about sending North Korean athletes to the PyeongChang Olympics starting in February. Now, the North Koreans are incredibly savvy. They know that the South Koreans will see North Korean involvement in the Olympics as a little bit of an insurance policy against provocation. But it is - does also open the way for a better relationship between North and South Korea. So it's really important that they take advantage of that. And yet, it's going to cause quite a bit of nervousness on the part of Washington because what Washington doesn't want is for the two Koreas to build this relationship without sidelining - they certainly don't want Washington to be sidelined.

MARTIN: That's Jean H. Lee. She's a North Korea expert with the Wilson Center. We have caught up with her in London. She's normally based in Seoul. Jean, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LEE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.