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3 Questions: North Korea: A Window on Public Opinion

Author Barbara Demick's book, "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea" (B.Demick).

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has elevated his youngest son to a high-ranking position in the country's ruling communist party -- an indication that he is being groomed to succeed his father. The North's official Korean Central News Agency announced Wednesday that Kim Jong Un was named to the central committee of the Workers' Party at this week's party conference. The younger Kim was commissioned a four-star general in North Korea's armed forces on Tuesday.

For a look at how North Koreans view Kim Jong Il's succession plans, VOA spoke with Barbara Demick, The Los Angeles Times Beijing Bureau chief and the newspaper's former Seoul correspondent. Demick's new book "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea," is a collection of interviews with North Korean defectors discussing the day to day struggles of trying to live in one of the world's most impoverished and repressive countries.

How do North Korean defectors view the Kim family, particularly as a third generation seems to be preparing to assume power?

"Well, I don't think they can separate their lives and their country from the Kim family...their country is the Kim family. But I don't think they have the same respect or, certainly, obedience for the Kim family that they once did. A point I often make that surprises people is that Kim Il Sung was really beloved, even hard-bitten defectors I know still speak with maybe grudging reverence for Kim Il Sung. He was the founder of North Korea. But Kim Jong Il, his son, who took over in 1994, has never been that popular. And this young man, who's in his late twenties, going into the third generation, I don't think is going to command the obedience and the unquestioned love that his grandfather did, or even the fear that his father did, so I think he has a tough road ahead."

Why was the original Kim so revered and why did public opinion decline toward his son, Kim Jong Il?

"Under Kim Il Sung, the founder, North Korea was a relatively prosperous country. People forget that for the first 20 years of its existence, it was more prosperous than South Korea and doing much, much better than China. So the North Koreans really thought they had it good in that Kim Il Sung took this war-torn country, and brought them food, education and housing, they had universal literacy. But Kim Il Sung's death in 1994 coincided with the collapse of the communist bloc and a famine that killed probably 10 percent of the population. A lot of people believed that Kim Il Sung had planned to open up the economy and reform and allow people more economic freedom and that Kim Jong Il stopped that.

Have North Koreans already formed an opinion about Kim Jong Un?

I've talked to quite a few people, North Koreans, who are working in China, this was earlier this year, but they were very wary about Kim Jong Un. They had started hearing about him last year in propaganda lectures, about the young general for the 21st century, he's full of spirit, and he has bright new ideas to take us forward. But many people were saying, 'Oh gosh, if his father is running the country so badly, what can we expect from the third generation?'"