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Former AP Pyongyang Bureau Chief Jean Lee discusses anniversary of Korean War's end


Seventy years ago today, a cease-fire took effect on the battle lines between North and South Korea. It froze the Korean War in which the United States supported the south. It did not technically end that war, which continues without a final peace agreement to this day. The people who have studied North Korea include Jean Lee. She is a former Pyongyang bureau chief for the Associated Press. Welcome back to the program.

JEAN LEE: Hi. Thanks for having me here.

INSKEEP: What makes this anniversary significant?

LEE: I'm so glad that you mentioned that this conflict hasn't been resolved. You know, we call it the forgotten war, but I think it's really important to recognize that North Korea has not forgotten it. This war still underpins so much of what we see from North Korea today. It's going to be marked very differently in South Korea and North Korea - probably will pass very quietly in South Korea, but we're going to see huge events in North Korea because this is an opportunity for Kim Jong Un to reinforce the Kim family rule of North Korea. This is a war that his grandfather launched in 1950. His father used it to justify building one of the biggest militaries in the world. And today, the grandson, Kim Jong Un, is using it to justify the need to build nuclear weapons.

INSKEEP: Does each country still claim the right to the whole peninsula?

LEE: You know, North Korea certainly uses the fight to remove U.S. troops from the South Korean side as justification for its buildup of nuclear weapons. On the South Korean side, South Koreans have moved on from the war in so many different ways and would much rather live - co-exist with a divided Korea rather than to imagine the country being one. I mean, these are two countries now with vastly different economies. North Korea is one of the poorest economies in the world, and South Korea has the world's 10th largest economy, so two very different Koreas today. And the costs, I think, of reunification would be enormous.

INSKEEP: Are they - have they been separated long enough that you would say that they are no longer one country culturally? You've just said they're not economically, but what about culturally?

LEE: Oh, absolutely. I spent so many years going back and forth, and I can tell you that that required me to speak two different languages. Even the - all of the languages - all the language that I used in North Korea was almost completely different, so I'd say that they can't communicate. They don't look the same anymore because they have completely different diets. Their political structures are different, their cultural references are different, and how they see themselves in the world is so different. So I would say that there's that older generation, my parents' generation, that remembers the country when it was one Korea. But with each passing decade and each passing generation, that memory has become so distant. When I meet young North Koreans in North Korea, they speak completely differently than young South Koreans, and they are almost strangers. And I would say the South Koreans - that my students in South Korea, the young South Koreans that I've gotten to know, really see the North Koreans almost as these distant cousins, distant relatives that they know they're related to but really want to hold at arm's length. So this is a reality that we may need to deal with when it comes to thinking about the difference between the two Koreas today.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, what did you think about when an American soldier who'd gotten in some kind of trouble recently crossed that cease-fire line - I guess not a border, but a cease-fire line from the south to the north?

LEE: You know, I've been to that joint security area inside the DMZ, and you can see how easy it is to step across. That's the only area where you can step across. There are no barriers. But, oh, what a complication not only for diplomacy, terrifying for his family, but it certainly complicates things whenever you have an American citizen in North Korea. So let's see how that - I hope they return him without any complication, but it certainly makes the relationship more difficult.

INSKEEP: Jean Lee is a former Pyongyang bureau chief at the Associated Press and hosts a podcast called "The Lazarus Heist" about North Korea's cyber theft. Thanks so much for your insights.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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