Conflict & Justice

Kim Jong Il dead: Does South Korea care?


South Korean protesters participate in a rally celebrating the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on Dec. 19, 2011 in Seoul.


Chung Sung-Jun

SEOUL, South Korea — Ask just about any young person you encounter in the coffee shops of this vibrant capital what they think about the death of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il, and the response is likely to be a shrug and then some mild speculation.

Older people, with memories of the horrors of the Korean War that engulfed much of the South after the North Korean invasion of June 1950, appear more concerned but have quickly gotten over their initial shock.

“I was so afraid when I heard the news,” said Lee Nam Bok, a woman who at the age of 60 still recalls fleeing with her family to stay ahead of advancing North Korean troops.

“I called my daughter and told her to come home. We have to be together and decide what to do.”

In the two days since a woman clad in traditional black “hanbok” wailed out the news on North Korean television, however, Lee’s sons and daughters have assured her “there will be no war” and advised her to relax. Now she’s switched off all-news YTN and is back to watching her favorite costume dramas featuring feuding and fighting from deep in Korean history.

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The parallels between the intrigue that has roiled the Korean peninsula over the centuries and the backstage rivalries for power and influence in Pyongyang are compelling, but from this vantage point, the real-live current drama appears remote if not almost irrelevant.

“We really don’t talk about it much,” said Park Yu Mi, a computer whiz taking time to gossip with friends in a coffee shop in central Seoul. “People say, ‘Why did he pass away when he looked healthy a few days earlier?” she said, “but nobody thinks anything will happen.”

People speculate about the future, but not many shared overly pessimistic views.

“There will be a lot of uncertainties,” said Lee Yong Jin, who works as an engineer for a large company. “But we knew for a long time he was in bad health.” Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in August 2008.

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Despite the sanguine, almost casual attitudes one finds here, the Dear Leader's death has sparked debate.

Recriminations fly over whether or not to send condolence delegations to Pyongyang for the funeral on Dec. 28. The government says no — none from the government and none from opposition politicians — but has said people may send personal condolence messages.

Activists on both sides oppose any attempt at compromise. “No one should express grief over the death of the man who enslaved his people,” said a man launching balloons from south of the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.

The balloons caught a breeze blowing toward the North, where they will drop leaflets telling people of the succession of power from Great Leader Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, to Kim Jong Il, and now Kim Jong Un, who is hailed by the North Korean media as “the great successor.”

That view, however, counters a report of a poll of 700 people conducted here in which 49.6 of the respondents favored sending condolences against 31.4 percent who did not.

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Adding to the controversy, Lee Hee Ho, widow of the late Kim Dae Jung, who initiated the Sunshine Policy of reconciliation during his five years as president from 1998 to 2003, urged the government to reconsider its ban on delegations going to the funeral.

Lee, citing the success of her husband in meeting Kim Jong Il at the first inter-Korean summit in June 2000, said expressions of grief, in the form of attendance at the funeral, would “ease tensions” blamed on the hard-line policies of South Korea’s conservative president, Lee Myung Bak.

In deference to her wishes, the government has granted permission for Lee to go to Pyongyang, but that won’t satisfy National Assembly members eager to rake in political capital over the issue.

Not surprisingly, lawmakers from President Lee’s party, which holds a majority in the assembly, firmly oppose relaxing the ban — and criticize the government for relenting enough even to allow personal condolences.

More from GlobalPost: South Korea skeptical over Kim Jong Il's death

The controversy has convinced at least one political observer, Jang Han Jin, that it was a good thing Kim Jong Il died when he did.

Just think, he said, of the protests that would have arisen if Kim Jong Il had passed away closer to April's National Assembly elections or the presidential elections next December. Lee Myung Bak is barred by Korea’s constitution from a second five-year term.

“There would have been a lot of confusion,” he said. “It would have a big impact on the campaigning. At least the timing was not so bad.”

Still, people are concerned about potential unrest in North Korea and some fear “incidents” against South Korea — such as the sinking in March last year of the navy corvette the Cheonan, in which 46 sailors died, or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea that killed four more people.

“North Korea may have an important effect on the economy,” said a man who makes a living building and selling new homes. “If it’s really dangerous, South Koreans won’t want to spend money to buy houses. We’re really concerned about that.”

No, he said, “I don’t think we will have a war — but I worry about so many different things.”