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Some North Koreans Puzzled By U.S. Call For Denuclearization


In Pyongyang today, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in shook hands on a deal, a deal that might get denuclearization back on track after talks stalled with the U.S. this summer.


Well, I was in North Korea last week asking North Koreans their thoughts on whether their country should give up its nukes. And we're going to hear one of those conversations in a moment. But let me start with today's news and bring in NPR's Rob Schmitz, who is tracking all of today's developments from Seoul in South Korea. Hey there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hello, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So a ton that unfolded today, but let me start with this headline. Kim Jong Un has agreed to shut down the North's main missile launch pad and also agreed to allow international inspectors in. So how big a concession is this?

SCHMITZ: It's certainly a start. Tongchang-ri's one of the North's most advanced missile test sites, so dismantling it is important. Equally important, Mary Louise, is that Kim agreed today, as you mentioned, that he'd allow international weapons inspectors inside his country to oversee the site's dismantling. But there is one problem here, and Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest was one among many today who pointed this out.

HARRY KAZIANIS: A lot of North Korea's missiles are mobile now. They're on mobile trucks. They can move anywhere. So a lot of these testing facilities, they can be opened up, they can be closed down at will. I think what Kim is trying to do is to show that he is serious in terms of denuclearization. But I think we don't know what Kim Jong Un's bottom line is. What does he want to denuclearize?

KELLY: Interesting. So he's raising the question there that Kim may be opening up one site to inspectors while something at another site they don't even know about may be happening. But that question about what does he want to denuclearize and what does denuclearize even mean to all of the parties involved prompts me to ask you, where does this leave relations with the U.S. and North Korea? Where does that diplomacy stand?

SCHMITZ: Well, it seems like in Kim's mind, giving up a missile launch pad and hinting at shutting down the North's main nuclear testing site is a step towards what the U.S. has been asking for. And now it's clear he wants to meet with Trump about beginning to lift the U.N. sanctions on his country. It's hard to know if Kim would give up a weapons program that he and his father worked so hard to build up over many, many years. And I don't think there are many people here in South Korea that actually think he'd ever scrap his nuclear weapons program. President Trump is certainly focused on that goal, but the South Koreans here seem more focused on using this opportunity to build a closer relationship with the North.

KELLY: And along those lines, they announced a bunch of other things today. What else was on the table?

SCHMITZ: Well, I think the big news here today was that Kim Jong Un announced that he plans to visit Seoul before the end of the year. I was in...

KELLY: It's never happened, right? A North Korean leader's never visited Seoul.

SCHMITZ: It's never happened, yeah. And that's - that would be an - a very historic event should that and when that happens. And the other announcement today that was kind of a big deal was that the two Koreas are going to file a joint bid to host the Summer Olympic Games in 2032.

KELLY: Just amazing.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. And so I think these are some of the items from today's summit that are in some ways more important to the future of this region and of North Korea than the incremental agreements that Kim made on the weapons program issues.

KELLY: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Seoul and reporting there on all the moving parts underway coming out of this summit in Pyongyang this week. Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: When I was there in Pyongyang last week on a reporting trip for NPR, I had the chance to visit Juche Tower. Our government minders, our ever-present shadows during the trip, took us there. Juche is the name of the official state ideology of North Korea. It's a philosophy of self-reliance, of a small country surrounded by big countries that must fend for itself. And smack in the middle of Pyongyang, visible from all over the city, stands the landmark Juche Tower.

CHE HE-OK: Hello.


KELLY: Hello.

CHE: Hello.


CHE: Nice to see you.

KELLY: Nice to see you, hello.

CHE: Good morning.

KELLY: Good morning.

That's our guide to Juche Tower, Che He-Ok. She is resplendent in a toe-skimming scarlet traditional Korean dress. And like all North Korean adults, Che He-Ok puts on a pin every day bearing the portraits of the country's first two leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Because you're showing pride in...

CHE: This is really our pride, yeah.

KELLY: So it's the...

CHE: That's why the pin's always very near to the heart, because they're the leaders of our nation just like the fathers of the nations.

KELLY: Juche Tower where we're talking also speaks to national pride. It's on the scale of the Washington Monument, only built to stand one meter taller. Che beckons us to the elevator.

CHE: Let's go - do you want to go up to the top?


CHE: Do you like it?

KELLY: Absolutely.

At the top, we step onto a viewing platform. Che points out the surprising pastel colors of the skyline and the river snaking below. She gives me a little geography quiz.

CHE: You know the name of the river? Do you?

KELLY: Yes, the Taedong River.

CHE: Taedong River. Oh, so good.

KELLY: Learning.

CHE: Yeah.

KELLY: What else should we see?

CHE: Yeah. With the river as the axis, the city is divided into three parts.


CHE: So all the buildings in the city have been rebuilt since 1953 when the Korean War resolved. So during the war, you know, whole city had been flattened down. Everything have been rebuilt since (unintelligible).

KELLY: That intrigued me, the not-subtle reference to American bombs that flattened her city. Between 1950 and 1953, the U.S. dropped hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs, including napalm, on North Korea or, as North Koreans refer to their country, the DPRK, Democratic People's Republic of Korea. I asked Che He-Ok about that legacy after we rode the elevator back down and she walked me over to the books and posters for sale in the gift shop.

I wonder. You were telling me up there Pyongyang was destroyed...

CHE: Right.

KELLY: ...In 1953...

CHE: Right.

KELLY: ...By Americans. Do people here remember that, still resent that?

CHE: That's the history. That's why we won't forget the history. U.S. and - has been - remained as a hostile to DPRK up to today because of all the disasters they made on the land and even very hostile policies against DPRK.

KELLY: Since the summit this summer in Singapore between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, Che acknowledged signs of possibly a thaw between our two nations.

I was told here in this gift shop until recently there were anti-American posters.

CHE: We don't have that one.

KELLY: They're gone.

CHE: No.

KELLY: Where did they go?

CHE: Because we want to establish new relations between you and me, like, United States and DPRK. So this is our state's policy, and this is everyone's desire in DPRK.

KELLY: And in terms of how North Koreans feel today about Americans, is the...

CHE: Even the state...

KELLY: ...Hatred still there?

CHE: Yeah. Yeah, hatred is still very deeply rooted in their heart. So many obstacles still.

KELLY: Obstacles like what, I ask. Che points to concessions she says her country has made since the Trump-Kim summit such as the return this summer of the remains of U.S. service members killed in the Korean War.

CHE: We've already done - DPRK already done, but nothing done inside of...

KELLY: On the U.S. side.

CHE: ...United States. Nothing done.

KELLY: The U.S. wants North Korea to give up nuclear weapons. Do you think North Korea should give up nuclear weapons?

CHE: Give up. Give up. (Laughter) What does that mean, giving up already - all the nuclear weapons already made in the DPRK? No, impossible.

KELLY: That was part of the statement they signed in Singapore, though.

CHE: Oh, yeah. We are not reproducing nuclear warfares and nuclear weapons anymore. But so far made, this is our...

KELLY: You think the ones you have...

CHE: This is our strength, yeah, because DPRK already developed into nuclear power. This is what the world knows. So already made all the weapons it will not give up, no - impossible.

KELLY: Che He-Ok, our guide on a tour of Juche Tower this month. She is one North Korean, one voice - and not an official one, but a window into how one North Korean sees her country's nuclear weapons status and its changing relations with the U.S. and the world. More stories from our reporting trip to Pyongyang in the days ahead. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.