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Amid Public Mourning for Kim Jong-il, ‘Truth About North Korea Is Hard to See’

December 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Next, to North Korea saying farewell to one leader and getting ready for another.

Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: Displays of public emotion are one image that the North Korean leadership wants the rest of the world to see. But much else remains a mystery, even the extent of that mourning.

We begin with a report from Angus Walker of Independent Television News, reporting from South Korea.

ANGUS WALKER: Lying in state, Kim Jong-il in death, as in life, treated like a king, surrounded by garlands and guards.

His son Kim Jong-un, in his 20s, expected to be the next in line in the world’s only communist dynasty. The burden of his birth seems heavy on his young shoulders as he assumes leadership of a country where even public mourning is controlled.

The country appears to be a state of hysteria, at least in front of the cameras. In the South Korean capital, I met three defectors from North Korea. We watched the latest news from the country they escaped from.

It’s crocodile tears, they told me. And I asked, what would happen if people didn’t weep and grieve in public?

SON JEONG HUN, North Korean defector (through translator): If people don’t cry in public, then they can be seen as insulting the leadership. It can regarded as a crime against the state.

ANGUS WALKER: It’s only when North Koreans have defected to the South that they’re free to reveal what they truly think about the regime they have escaped from.

But it is possible to hear what people are saying inside the secretive state. This is a radio station which broadcasts at midnight. North Koreans, risking arrest, can listen to the shortwave signal. The man who runs the station says he’s managed to speak to North Koreans on smuggled mobile phones during the last 24 hours.

HA TAE GYUNG, radio station director: So, some of them, even some of them called — we called today, they say that they welcome the death of Kim Jong-il, because the death of Kim Jong-il signals a new era, when they can change North Korean society.

ANGUS WALKER: But any hopes of real change now rely on Kim Jong-un. His succession, shrouded in secrecy, amid rumors of infighting means now more than ever the truth about North Korea is hard to see.