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Governments Around the World React With Caution to News of Death of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il; Youngest Son of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un, Hailed as Great Successor by State Media; Wolf Blitzer Gives Viewers Tour of Pyongyang, Capital of North Korea

Aired December 19, 2011 - 02:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

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KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: A very emotional presenter on North Korean State Television made the official announcement. Long time leader Kim Jong-il is dead. He was officially revered at home and considered a ruthless dictator almost everywhere else.

And our neighboring countries are on alert, uncertain what this secretive regime will do next. And North Korea's state news agency is calling his son, Kim Jong-un, The Great Successor.

Meanwhile, North Koreans weep as the news sinks in. Just look at these pictures just in from Pyongyang.

State run news reports that the nation's Dear Leader died on Saturday, reportedly from over work while dedicating his life to the people. Kim Jong-il was 69 years old. State run news says he suffered a heart attack while on a train trip. His funeral is to be held on December 28th in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-il was only the second leader the people of this reclusive communist nation have ever known. And senior international correspondent Dan Rivers looks back at the enigmatic Kim Jong-il.

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DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kim Jong-il always cuts a slightly bizarre figure. His diminutive stature and characteristic hair was parodied by some in the west. But for the citizens of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, Kim was the embodiment of this reclusive state.

Feared, loved, worshipped, obeyed, his cult of personality was deeply entrenched.

His father was Kim Il-sung, who founded North Korea with Soviet backing after World War II. Kim Jong-il was just a little boy when the Korean War broke out in 1950, with the Soviet-backed north invading the American backed south. After fighting ended, Kim Jong-il became steeped in his father's philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance. And the North became ever more reclusive.

The North and South never formally signed a peace treaty, and remain technically at war, separated by a tense demilitarized zone. Gradually, Kim Jong-il was groomed for the top, making public appearances in front of cheering crowds.

When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, he was declared eternal president. So his son instead became general secretary of the Ruling Workers Party of Korea. And by 1998, as head of the Army, he consolidated his position of absolute power.

ANDRE LARKOV, NORTH KOREA ANALYST: He will be remembered as a person who was responsible for awful things, for the existence of one of the worst dictatorships in probably not only Korean history, but in the world history, at least in the 21st century. Yet, he did not create the dictatorship. It was father's But he took responsibility and he made sure it continued for many year years.

RIVERS: He was known for his love of fine wines, at odds in a country where food shortages and privation were common. While the Dear Leader, as he became known, is said to have indulged in these appetite for the finer things, his people were literally starving to death.

The collapse of the Soviet Union hit North Korea hard, suddenly ending guaranteed trade deals. And then devastating floods compounded the famine. Estimates vary for the number that died, but even the regime itself admitted that almost a quarter of a million perished between 1995 and 1998. Some say it was more like ten times that figure.

But in the capital of Pyongyang, the artifice of a successful state was maintained. An opulent subway proof, the dear leader would say, that the DPRK's progressed under his and his father's leadership.

Kim Jong-il was well known as a film buff, here visiting the set of a North Korean production. His personal video library was said to include 20,000 titles, with "Rambo" and "Friday the 13th" supposedly topping the Dear Leader's favorite flicks.

In 2000, there appeared to be a thaw in North/South relations, the first-ever summit between Kim Jong-il and his then counterpart from the South, President Kim Dae-Jung. The south's so-called sunshine policy of engagement seemed to be bearing fruit.

But Kim Jong-il pressed ahead with his nuclear weapons program. The U.S. labeled it as part of the axis of evil in 2002. A year later, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

In 2006, the North conducted a nuclear test and test fired missiles. It added extra urgency to the six-party talks designed to deal with North Korea's nuclear program.

A breakthrough came in 2007 when Kim Jong-il finally agreed to disable the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, in return for fuel and better relations with the U.S.

But despite dramatically blowing up the cooling tower, North Korea seemed to backtrack afterwards. The deal appeared to be in jeopardy. The capture of two U..S journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, on the North Korean border sparked another crisis in 2009.

It ended when former President Bill Clinton flew in and successfully negotiated their release, prompting hopes there would be further engagement.

Observers say Kim Jong-il will be remembered as a nearly impossible man to bargain with, stubborn and fickle in equal measure, a man who kept 23 million people in a totalitarian nightmare, in one of the most repressive, reclusive regimes in the world.

Dan Rivers, CNN.

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LU STOUT: Now the country is looking to its next leader, Kim Jong- il's youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-un is believed to be 27 or 28 years old. He is the son of the elder Kim's late third wife. Because of his age and lack of experience, he is said to be a political novice.

Last year, he was promoted to a four star general. Until then, there were few known photos of him. He's said to share the same type of personality described as ambitious and a take no prisoners type.

Let's get some analysis from Chun Min Lee, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University. He joins me now live in Seoul, South Korea.

Professor, thank you very much for joining us here on CNN. What is the reaction in Seoul to the death of Kim Jong-il? Are people there stunned or were they expecting this announcement?

CHUN MIN LEE, YONSEI UNIVERSITY: I think most people here in South Korea, including our government, expected the passing of Kim Jong-il fairly soon, but, of course, we were not really sure exactly when he would pass away. So South Koreans are taking this in stride.

The army, the government, they are all on a state of high alert. But I think business as usual is the key word in Seoul today.

LU STOUT: The South Korean military, they raised their security alert. What prompted that move?

LEE: This is part of the ongoing process that we have put into place for the last several years. The South Korean government and armed forces basically want to make sure that the North Korean armed forces do not take anything else, for example, doing another strike against our forces in the Yellow Sea or along DMZ.

So this is an entirely precautionary pressure. So we're watching any early warning signals that might come from Pyongyang. But so far nothing unusual is happening across the DMZ.

LU STOUT: We're also monitoring the stock markets. And the Seoul Kospi, it's already closed. Shares traded lower upon news of the death of Kim Jong-il. And quite interestingly, we saw stocks in South Korean defense companies rally quite strongly. So what is the mentality behind that?

LEE: You know, every time there's a major North Korean crisis, such as the detonation of a nuclear weapon back several years ago, the passing of Kim Il-sung in 1994, or the shelling of the Yeonpyeong in November 2010, the South Korean stock market will, of course, react. But over the longer term, the market basically readjusts itself, because stability and security's name of the game.

So as long as you have 27,000 U.S. forces stationed here in South Korea and a robust alliance, I think most Koreans feel that the economy will be back on track.

LU STOUT: Stability and security is the name of the game. Is that being reiterated by the Blue House? What is the political reaction to the news?

LEE: Yes. As soon as President Lee Myung-bak heard of the news of Kim Jong-il's passing this morning, he basically convened an emergency meeting at the national security council in the Blue House, our presidential office. At 3:00 p.m. this afternoon, as we speak, the president's meeting with his cabinet in emergency session.

But he also wanted to tell the Korean people that we will do everything we can to make sure that a crisis doesn't basically erupt, but at the same time that business as usual; the economy basically will be on track. So he's sending two key messages to the Korean people and to the outside world.

LU STOUT: Japan, upon hearing the news of the death of Kim Jong-il, had sent its condolences. South Korea has no decision to make just of yet in terms of sending condolences. Why is that? Is this significant at all? Should we read anything into this?

LEE: Well, this is a political issue, because as you recall when Kim Il-sung died in 1994, the then-government, also a conservative government, did not accede to the opposition's demand that the opposition send a delegation to Pyongyang to pay respects to Kim Il- sung.

So after Kim Jong-il's passing, I am sure parts of the opposition party, if not the broader opposition, will want to send their own delegates to Pyongyang, if Pyongyang wants to accept them. Although the official announcement so far said that throughout the morning period, the North Korean government will not accept foreign dignitaries.

So this has always been a politically sensitive issue in South Korea. I don't think the South Korean government will send itself an official delegation to Pyongyang. LU STOUT: In 2010, we saw the sinking of the Chaonan (ph), the South Korean warship. That brought relations between the North and South to a new low. What is the status of relations now? And how will it change, if it does change, with a North Korea under Kim Jong-un?

LEE: So far, it's been frozen, ever since, as you recall, those two major crises in 2010. And proceeding that. a South Korean tourist was killed in Mount Kumgan (ph). So basically the South Koreans are giving minimum humanitarian assistance. But there is no breakthrough in dialogue between South and North Korea.

With the death of Kim Jong-il, I doubt highly whether Kim Jong-un, the 28, 29-year-old son of Kim Jong-il, has the wherewithal to engage in extensive dialogue with the south. So for the time being, there will be shadow boxing between South and North Korean, but no real breakthrough.

LU STOUT: All right, Chun Min Lee, professor of international relations of Yonsei University, joining us live from Seoul, thank you very much for joining us here on CNN with this breaking news story.

LEE: Thank you.

LU STOUT: Japan called an emergency national security meeting on news of Kim Jong-il's death. A statement by the chief government spokesman has since been issued offering condolences. Quote, "we express our condolences on the news of passing Kim Jong-il, the chairman of the National Defense Committee of NOrth Korea. We wish the sudden news would not affect North Korea negatively."

China is North Korea's closest ally, of course. And here's the scene as the flag was lowered at North Korea's embassy in Beijing. And people watched as the flag was raised and lowered again to half staff in mourning for Kim Jong-il.

Our Stan Grant is there live in Beijing monitoring reaction there in China and, of course, around the region. He joins us now. Stan, we're still waiting for official word, reaction, from Beijing.

STAN GRANT, CNN BEIJING CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, we are. But you know, China has an enormous stake in this. As you pointed out, the key relationship between North Korea and China. North Korea in the past has been described as a client state of China. We know that China has sent thousands -- tens of thousands of volunteers, plain clothed members of the army across the border to fight with North Korea in the Korean War.

China has a huge stake in the stability of that country. North Korea relies on China for its economy. It relies on China for the vast bulk of its fuel supplies. During the 1990s, of course, North Korea went through an absolutely horrendous economic downturn. Its economy contracted by about 50 percent.

The collapse of other communist regimes around the world, most notably the Soviet Union, left Korea very isolated. And that relationship with China has very much come to the fore. In recent times, we've seen Kim Jong-il bring his son, Kim Jong-un, to China to try to introduce him to the leadership, if you'd like, to get the stamp of approval from the leadership.

Now the death of Kim Jong-ill would come as no real surprise. As we know, he's been in ill health for some time. China would have rehearsed numerous contingencies. But right now, it's the unexpected. It's the questions that we can't answer right now.

How much authority will the young Kim Jong-un have? Will he be able to bring stability to the country. What will the reaction of ordinary North Koreans be?

And China, of course, watching that border area for any sign that people are trying to make a run across into China. Christie?

LU STOUT: And let's expand on that a little bit. In the last few hours, we have learned that in North Korea, they have called Kim Jong- un the Great Successor. Will this be the smooth succession?

Does China -- factoring in that there is a chance there will not be a smooth succession, there will be instability, an influx of refugees across the border? Really, how likely is that?

GRANT: Well, these are the nightmare scenarios. People can always conjecture about the potential implosion of North Korea, that Kim Jong-un is not able to establish himself. There are rogue elements of the military, a reaction from the North Korean people themselves.

But all of that moves into the area of conjecture. Right now, as we've seen, Kim Jong-il has been grooming his son, Kim Jong-un, for a role in the leadership to succeed him. We saw last year he was appointed a four star general.

Many people, in fact, were looking at the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, where I was able to report on late last year, as really the work of Kim Jong-un, an attempt by him to try to establish his military credentials.

Lurking as well is the figure of Kim Jong-un's uncle. The wife of Kim Jong-il's sister is also a senior figure in the military there. And some have also speculated that he will be the power behind the throne, if you like, perhaps even play more of a direct leadership role while Kim Jong-un is able to establish himself.

But when we talk about North Korea, it's so closed off. It's called the hermit kingdom. It's so difficult to read, so opaque. One constant, of course, has been the presence of Kim Jong-il. Regardless of how buffoonish or how caricatured he was as being an eccentric leader, he was the constant.

He was the figure there that the world had come to know, someone who was, despite the image -- was seen as a very shrewd operator, someone who could come to talks like the six party talk and be able to work through the negotiations to get what he wants, to back track, to play one hand, play one country off against another. His demise now leaves that vacant space. The question is, can Kim Jong-un fill that space. Christie?

LU STOUT: Stan Grant joining us live from Beijing, thank you.

Now in Washington, a U.S. official says the death of Kim Jong-il brings extraordinary change and uncertainty to North Korea, and that an insecure North Korea could well be an even more dangerous North Korea.

Earlier, the White House press secretary issued a statement saying this: "we are closely monitoring reports that Kim Jong-il is dead. The president has been notified. And we are in close touch with our allies in South Korea and Japan. We remain committed to stability on the Korean Peninsula and to the freedom and security of our allies."

You're watching CNN. We'll be back with more breaking news coverage of the death of Kim Jong-il after the break.

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LU STOUT: Welcome back. Let's recap our top story. It is the end of an era in North Korea. State television says that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has died. State TV said that the 69-year-old leader, he suffered a heart attack Saturday while on a train trip.

It also said a funeral will be held December the 28th in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-il had been in power since 1994, when his father died of a heart attack.

Earlier, North Korea analyst Peter Beck gave us his take on how ordinary people in North Korea may be reacting to the news of the Dear Leader's demise.

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PETER BECK, NORTH KOREA ANALYST: It's fair to say that the outpouring of emotion that we saw with the official announcement is unlikely to be followed by the average North Korean. Really, his 17 years in power, he did not do much to distinguish himself, other than making North Korea a nuclear power. And that doesn't put food on the table for the average North Korean.

So I think as far as the average North Korean is concerned, they are not going to be shedding too many tears for him.

LU STOUT: Let's talk about the human rights legacy of Kim Jong-il and what happened in North Korea under his leadership, the famines, the human rights crises. Explain.

BECK: That's right. He took over -- his father died at the outset of the most serious famine that North Korea has experienced in really -- in its modern times. We don't know even now how many people died, hundreds of thousands at least.

And we think up to 200,000 are in North Korean gulags. So he has maintained an iron grip on the country over the last 17 years.

What's interesting is that when his father passed away, he did not appear in public for several years. Whether it was morning or consolidating his rule, we don't know. But he was in seclusion for the first several years.

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LU STOUT: Peter Beck speaking to me earlier. After the break, we'll be checking on market reaction to the news, the death of Kim Jong-il. You're watching CNN. We'll be back after the break.

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm shocked. I wonder what is going to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was the only one to have power in north Korea. His death will have a big impact.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I hope the North will become more democratic. I don't want chaos.

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LU STOUT: Reaction down the streets of Tokyo to the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The Japanese government held emergency meetings on Monday soon after the reports of Mr. Kim's death. Let's get more now from the Japanese government.

Nuriyuki Shikata is a spokesman for the Japanese prime minister. He joins us now live from CNN Tokyo. Tell us, tell us, what has come out of these emergency meetings in Tokyo in response to the death of the North Korean leader?

NURIYUKI SHIKATA, JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER SPOKESMAN: Well, this report of the passage of Mr. Kim Jong-il, Prime Minister Noda instructed to carry out of following three points: information gathering, sharing information with the countries concerned, and prepare ourselves for any contingency.

LU STOUT: Now, South Korea, they have raised their security alert upon hearing the news. Have you done the same in Japan?

SHIKATA: There was various discussion at the emergency national security council meeting. We have not come up with any new changes after the report has been circulating.

LU STOUT: OK, what are the implications of the death of Kim Jong-il on the six party process and attempts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula? SHIKATA: Well, Japan as a member of six party talks, so we have been trying to achieve denuclearizing of Korean Peninsula, addressing the issues of abductions and other relevant issues. And we are hoping that we'll be able to make progress.

And we will have to closely watch what is going to be the implications for -- as a result of passage of Mr. Kim Jong-il.

LU STOUT: It seems you're closely watching, monitoring. Japanese government being very cautious at this moment, or that's what you're conveying as a spokesperson.

I wanted to ask you about the Japanese abduction issue. Does the death of Kim Jong-il awaken hope in Japan that this issue will be resolved?

SHIKATA: Well, this issue of abduction is something that we attach so much importance to. And in solving this problem, we are hoping in the future Japan and North Korea relations will be normalized. But we have to wait and see what is going to be the reaction from North Korea after this death of Mr. Kim Jong-il.

LU STOUT: What is Tokyo's view of the Great Successor, Kim Jong-un?

SHIKATA: Well, we know that there has been reports of the successor issues, but we have to really watch how, you know, this transition to a new regime will emerge. And we are contacting with our allies, the United States, South Korea, and China, to observe very carefully what's happening in North Korea.

LU STOUT: OK, Nuriyuki Shikata, spokesman for the Japanese prime minister, joining us live from CNN Tokyo. Thank you very much for making yourself available right here on CNN.

Now we are also tracking reaction from other nations. South Korea has raised its national alert to the second of three levels. And President Lee Myung-bak asked that the people of South Korea concentrate on economic activities and remain calm.

Mr. Lee also spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama, who reaffirmed America's commitment to its ally in Seoul. South Korea has much to fear if North Korea becomes unstable. The two share a tense and fortified border. They never came to terms after the Korean War and are still technically at war.

Now, how is the U.S. State Department dealing with this news? Well, our senior State Department, Elise Labott, spoke to us earlier from Washington.

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ELISE LABOTT, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT PRODUCER: Well, I think they're a little shocked, John. I think it happened a little bit sooner than they thought it would. And they really don't know who is on the -- as we've been saying, is Kim Jong-un making this decisions at this point? Or are these so-called regents, his aunt, his uncle, the sister of Kim Jong-il and her husband, are they the ones making decisions?

Is the military making decisions? I think there's going to be a real period of uncertainty for the United States. They have seen some progress in engagement with the North over the last six months or so. I think they're going to put on the brakes a little bit, trying to decide what they're going to try to do.

They're going to have to very carefully calibrate the messages over the next 24 to 48 hours. Are they going to offer condolences? Are they going to anoint, so to speak, the so-called new leader that the -- we all expect him to be. It hasn't been announced obviously yet.

I think the U.S. is going to really tread very carefully. There is certainly not going to be some wholesale engagement. Overnight the U.S. isn't going to embrace this young, untested leader.

But I don't think they want to close the door to the -- to what we have been talking about all evening, that this could be an opportunity. Could he be a more benevolent leader than his father? It's certainly possible. But he could also be a much more unpredictable leader.

And he's untested. Obviously, the North Koreans are going to want to portray him as in command. Could that mean an overture towards the west or could that mean some provocative behavior towards the south? They really don't know. I think they're going to be watching and waiting to see the signals from Pyongyang as they closely, closely coordinate with South Korea, as --

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LU STOUT: Elise Labott there with the word from Washington. Now there have been fears about chaos in the wake of Kim's death. And Mike Chinoy has reported extensively from the region. He told us how on a recent visit, he was struck by the stability of the regime.

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MIKE CHINOY, U.S. CHINA INSTITUTE: I had not been in Pyongyang in six year. And I went back in August. and I was struck by the sense of political stability across the board, the diplomats, the aid workers, the people I spoke with seemed very convinced that the succession was track, that there was not a lot of internal discord about it.

Moreover, there were some very intriguing signs in Pyongyang of sort of inklings of movement towards opening up a little bit. North Korea now has over a half million people using cell phones, with an internal cell phone system that was set up by an Egyptian company.

There are more private restaurants than I had seen before. There was even the first joint venture pizza parlor in Pyongyang. They were moving ahead with economic zones with the Chinese. While I was there, Kim Jong-il went to Russia and talked with Vladimir Putin about North Korea and Russia and South Korea jointly setting up a gas pipeline to send natural gas from the Russian far east through North Korea to South Korea. And at the same time, North Korea's first vice foreign minister, Kim Kye-Gwan, was in Washington, meeting with the United States. So I came away not with the sense that the North Koreans were embracing Chinese style market reforms, but that the focus was on securing a more tranquil external atmosphere and trying to crank up the economy.

And that fits into the critical importance of the year 2012 in the North Korean calendar. The North Koreans call it Juche 100. Juche is the nationality ideology of self reliance invented by Kim Il-sung. And April of 2012 is his 100th birthday. And the North Korean official mantra has been that the country should be a powerful and prosperous country.

And the powerful they've got because they've got nukes. And so the emphasis was on the prosperous. And so you had these indications of focusing on the economy. So I actually came away with the sense that it was a little bit more relaxed and a little bit more open to being open than it had been before. I -- it is very hard to interpret what that mean.

And it may well be during in this period of national tragedy and crisis that the North Koreans will -- will tighten things up again, which is a natural response. But there were these very interesting vibes, that were significantly different from the conventional picture of North Korea that a lot of people have.

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LU STOUT: Fascinating insight from North Korean watcher Mike Chinoy there. You're watching CNN with our continuing breaking news coverage of the death of Kim Jong-il. We'll have more after the break.

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LU STOUT: Welcome to our breaking news coverage. North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il is dead. A state-run news agency, KCNA, says the 69-year- old Dear Leader died of a heart attack while he was on a train trip on Saturday. His youngest son, Kim Jong-un, is already being referred to as the Great Successor.

Kim Jong-il took control of the secretive communist nation in 1994, when his father, called Great Leader, died of a heart attack. Kim's funeral is planned for December the 28th in Pyongyang.

And journalist and documentary film maker Shannon Van Sant has spent several weeks filming North Korean refugees as they escaped through China. And earlier, I spoke with her about the possibility that instability in North Korea could lead to a major influx of refugees into China.

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SHANNON VAN SANT, JOURNALIST AND DOCUMENTARY FILM MAKER: Part of the reason why these refugees have such a lot of trouble escaping through China is there is a bounty price placed on their head by the Chinese government. So Chinese citizens and Chinese policemen are in some cases awarded several hundred dollars for turning in North Korean refugees.

And china has stepped up security along the North Korean border. It has to some extent succeeded in stemming the flow of refugees. And I think the top concern for China over the next few months is trying to stabilize that situation and trying to prevent any massive influx of North Koreans across the border.

LU STOUT: Have you been able to contact those you interviewed for your documentary film, the North Korean defectors, to gauge their thoughts and reaction to the death of Kim Jong-il?

VAN SANT: I have spoken with the missionaries this morning who helped them escape. And they said that the refugees in general -- they have not spoken to the specific refugees that I followed and filmed -- one of those refugees is still in hiding in Bangkok, while he's applying for asylum to the United States.

But the two that made it to Seoul, they have since -- they were in prostitution. They were sold into sexual slavery in China. They have returned to prostitution in Seoul, and I have lost touch with them. But the missionaries that I've spoken with and that I was following and filming, they say that many of these refugees are reluctant and will be reluctant to speak out or have an opinion on this, because they still, even after they have escaped to South Korea or the United States -- they still are very scared.

They're scared for the safety of their family members back in North Korea. They will be reluctant to say anything that's negative about the regime. But judging from my interviews and my experiences with them, I think that they hope desperately that North Korea will change to the extent that people have food to eat, that their families are not dying of starvation, that people do not face public executions for watching banned television shows, that they are not sent to hard labor.

These are all experiences that the refugees described to me.

LU STOUT: Yes. And I wanted to hear more about that, just the reasons why they risked their lives to leave the country. You know, what kind of conditions they were facing that forced them to make this harrowing journey from North Korea through China and to their ultimate destination.

VAN SANT: Sure. Two of the refugees I interviewed were teenagers. One was a 19-year-old girl. She was sold into sexual slavery in China. And she went across the border with human smugglers for a chance at a better life in China, but primarily so she could feed her family.

Her mom was unable to get out of bed because she didn't have enough food to eat. Her parents were incredibly sick. And all she wanted to do was feed her family. That was her only goal in coming into China. And that was still her goal when I spoke with her before she made it to Seoul.

They desperately want their family members, their parents to be OK, to have enough food to eat. The two women I interviewed, they had been sold into sexual slavery in China and then deported back to North Korea. They were caught by the police. So then had spent several months in hard labor camps in North Korea.

The conditions the described in those labor camps were absolutely horrifying. They were -- they had scars on their legs because they were beaten by leaches. They had to live in a place with bugs and leaches and a room -- a very small room with maybe 80 people to a room. They had to do back-breaking work and hard labor.

These were young women. One was 19. So the conditions they described were unimaginable.

And the third refugee I interviewed is a 16-year-old boy. His family was not dying of starvation, but he said that they basically only had potatoes to eat. And a family would be considered quite wealthy in his village if they could afford a bowl of rice.

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LU STOUT: Incredible access and a fascinating glimpse inside Pyongyang earlier today, as North Koreans react to the news of the death of Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-il's death brings a new season of uncertainty for the long struggling communist country.

His own Kim Jong-un has been groomed to take over. And everyone wonders whether he will be any different. And we put that question to North Korea expert Han Park.

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HAN PARK. GEORGIA UNIVERSITY: I -- I'm not sure if I agree with that assessment completely. When a country is under a security threat, as North Koreans have felt at least subjectively, and objectively as well, then human rights and imprisonment and much oppressive policy -- policy is expected.

So as long as North Korea is still -- is still in the same security threat situation, I think we can expect the same thing under Kim Jong- un, or post-Kim Jong-il era.

However, I think Kim Jong-un would -- would very much be obsessed to develop the economy, more than anything else, because Kim Jong-il kind of wanted his son to become like China's -- China's Deng Xiaoping, so that economic pragmatism is going to be first the choice -- first option or foreign policy priority on the part of Kim Jong-un.

If that doesn't work, of course, I think it is -- it is highly unlikely that North Korea will reform and change and become a democratic system.

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LU STOUT: Han Park speaking to us earlier. We leave you now with an inside look at the North Korean capitol. CNN's Wolf Blitzer toured Pyongyang last year and took us along for the journey.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The North Korean capital is a lot different than I thought. Take, for example, the subway system. It takes forever to get to the underground station. I never saw such long escalators, even longer than the ones at the Washington, D.C., Metro. So deep that it could and does double as an underground bunker.

(on camera): We're here at the Prosperity Subway Station. It's deep underground. You saw how long it takes to get through that -- those escalators. We're really, really deep underground. Patriotic pictures all over the place.

As we're speaking right now, also very patriotic music going on. It's the nature of Pyongyang and North Korea, a lot of patriotism, a lot of propaganda music and a lot of propaganda pictures all the time.

(voice-over): New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's senior adviser is Tony Nam Kun (ph). He's been to North Korea 40 times, going back to 1990.

(on camera): Hi, we're here on a subway train. It's still in the station. We're about to take off. We'll see where it goes. I have no idea where it goes. So far, so good.

Tony, what do you think about this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It reminds me of an underground bomb shelter. It's so deep.

BLITZER: That's what I thought.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a very colorful station with all the paintings and the color and -- it's very crowded, midday. A lot of people moving forward, moving backwards.

BLITZER: Do people pay for these --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, they pay.

BLITZER: How do they -- because I didn't see...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Five Yuan per ride.

BLITZER: How much is that U.S.?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very little. About 100 Yuan to a dollar now. So -- BLITZER: So it's like five cents? So it's a nickel?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But most people use six-month passes, which they buy for about 100 Yuan.

BLITZER: So that's a dollar?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very cheap.

BLITZER: A dollar, they can basically ride for six months.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right, as much as they want.

BLITZER: It's a pretty good deal.

We're moving now. Pretty smooth.

(voice-over): But sometimes it goes dark. Electricity shortages are always a problem in North Korea.

We went to this high school where the students were in cold classrooms, with overcoats, so cold you could see their breath. The rooms were not well lit.

(on camera): All right, here we are. This is Kim Il-sung Square. As you can see, it's really huge. It's magnificent. And they often have events here, which is totally understandable. These are all government buildings over here.

And this is a magnificent palace right in front of me over here, if you want to just look over. You can see the foreign ministry. And then you see this marvelous structure over here.

This is a brisk cold day on this Friday here in Pyongyang. But it's nice. There's not a whole lot of traffic here.

It's icy. The streets are icy. It's snowy. You can see a lot of people shoveling.

And there you see the hammer and sickle of this communist government. You see Lenin. You see Marx, manifestations of the communist philosophy.

And then you see a lot of young people, and not -- some not so young, just shoveling snow, which is totally understandable, given what's going on. But it's brisk. It's lovely. It's a nice day here in Pyongyang.

(voice-over): We drove all over the North Korean capital, saw lots and lots of buildings. Some looked impressive from afar, but I couldn't help but wonder if they were just for show. Were there really people living inside? I couldn't get access to find out.

We also went to the national library, where they have lots of less than state-of-the-art computers. They also have a music room with old-school boom boxes and headsets. Folks can listen to their favorites. I was surprised by some of them.

(MUSIC)

BLITZER (on camera): Who would have thought -- Governor, we're here at a library in North Korea, Pyongyang, and we're listening on a beat box over here to Kenny Rogers.

How are you?

(voice-over): I had some fun when I saw the North Korean Girls' National Ice Hockey Team jogging outside the National Ice Rink.

(on camera): We're running. We're running. Everybody is looking good.

(voice-over): I couldn't help but join them, with my handheld camera shooting away.

Wolf Blitzer, CNN, Pyongyang, North Korea.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LU STOUT: I'm Christie Lu Stout. Our breaking news coverage on the death of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il continues in a moment. Stay with us.

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