© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

N. Korean Kaesong Workers Mourn Kim Jong Il


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Throughout this morning, we're tracking the results of Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses, where Mitt Romney edged Rick Santorum by just eight votes. We're also following other news, including developments from a country that changed its leader with no election at all.

INSKEEP: Kim Jong Un took over North Korea when his father died. It is hard to know what ordinary North Koreans think of this, but some are allowed to work with South Koreans in an industrial zone along the fortified dividing line between those two countries. Doualy Xaykaothao visited there.


DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO, BYLINE: Only South Koreans approved by the government can get past this lone checkpoint inside the DMZ and cross into North Korea. At this hour, it's mostly truckers going into Kaesong, a border city where South Korean companies employ North Korean workers. The day after Kim Jong Il died, this South Korean driver, in his 50's, was working alongside North Koreans.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) People in Kaesong are not into politics. Most of them are just normal citizens. I think they aren't bad people.

XAYKAOTHAO: They were grieving, he recalls, some people's hands couldn't operate machines as normal. Asked if he talked to his co-workers about Kim Jong Il's death, he says...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) Well, I don't need to ask questions or have any interest in asking questions. We are just working for the company. I am devoted to my work and I don't need to provoke anyone.

XAYKAOTHAO: He adds, working with North Koreans means being careful not to offend.

Some 48,000 North Koreans work with about a thousand South Koreans in Kaesong. Kim Yong-joo, who didn't want to give us his company's name, also drives into North Korea to work there everyday.

KIM YONG-JOO: (Through translator) The first day, there were a lot of people crying uncontrollably. But now North Koreans are starting to talk a little bit and even laugh.


XAYKAOTHAO: Surrounded by rolling hills and guard posts, Cho Sung-taek, who's in his 60's, shovels snow from a walkway at Dorasan Station. This is the last train stop in South Korea. The next is the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang, two hours north.

CHO SUNG-TAEK: (Through translator) I'm not scared to work here, because South Korean soldiers are stationed right at the border. Even though this area is the frontline, workers like me don't feel nervous.

XAYKAOTHAO: Cho says the area is mostly for sightseeing, locals and foreigners from nearby Japan and China are especially drawn to the four underground tunnels dug by North Korean soldiers to try and infiltrate South Korea years ago.

CHO: (Through translator) This place used to be busier, with a lot more trains coming in, but now I see fewer trains in a day.

XAYKAOTHAO: He speaks as if he misses the company of strangers. Working at the border can be isolating.


XAYKAOTHAO: Chang Sung-taek and his wife Joo Ae-ja are both farmers in this restricted area within South Korea's demilitarized zone. Chang wears an old Russian winter hat and is beaming with four gold teeth.

CHANG SUNG-TAEK: (Foreign language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: Yes, I don't have to think about Kim Jong Il. He's dead. What is there to it?

He doesn't want to talk about North Korea's dead leader or talk of war, but she insists...

JOO AE-JA: (Through translator) No. I'm not scared. There will be no war. What are you talking about? War won't start.


XAYKAOTHAO: She then turns up her radio and starts to sing, something she often does here. Even though she lives and works at the border, North Korea is the last thing on her mind.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao at the DMZ in South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!