For the more than 20,000 North Korean refugees who live in South Korea the unexpected death Saturday of their former “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, conjured mixed emotions. They welcome the death of one of the world’s most oppressive leaders, a man whose policies helped cause a famine that led to the deaths of up to 3 million of his people. On the other hand, they are worried that their fellow compatriots in the North might suffer even more hardship under the new leader, Kim’s third son, Jong-un, whose lack of experience is likely to stifle the North’s already impoverished economy.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the news of Kim’s death because of his crimes against humanity,” says Choi Myong-chul, a 30-year-old graduate student at Seoul’s Yonsei University who fled to the South eight years ago to escape the hunger that is part of millions of peoples’ daily lives. “But at the same time, I was deeply concerned about the future of North Koreans and, more importantly, future of the entire Korean Peninsula. There could be a lot of hardship and confusion because power transition in the North could be very rocky.”
Northern refugees are particularly worried that Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, had only about two years of preparation for power, unlike his father who had been groomed for nearly 30 years before he took over from his own father, Kim Il-sung, 17 years ago. “Because Kim Jong-un is young and inexperienced, he will be more adventurous and reckless than his father,” says Lee Myong-sook, 35, who defected to South Korea in 2002, also because of economic difficulties. “Kim Jong-il was predictable to some degree because he was in control, but without solid power, the son will be more unpredictable.” She thinks the South Korean government should to be prepared for the “worst-case scenario.”
The worst-case scenario means a sudden collapse of the Pyongyang regime, the result of an internal power struggle many people fear may play out at the heart of the ruling family. That might result in a de facto, accidental unification, something many Koreans pine for, but many refugees in South Korea believe the country would not be able to cope with millions of their fellow Northerners flooding into the country in the event of the regime’s collapse. “South Koreans are not prepared for a sudden unification, financially and psychologically,” warns Choi, the graduate student.
But some refugees are cautiously hopeful of positive changes in the North. “Kim Jong-un can move toward reform and openness in order to secure more legitimacy,” says Park Yong-ju, 42, a former teacher in the North who fled in 2004. Choi, the student, adds that the new regime might be more open to political reforms because it will be a collective leadership, rather than the one-man dictatorships of Jong-un’s father and grandfather. “There are some reasonable elite members [of the regime] in Pyongyang who know what is happening in the world,” he says. “Having studied overseas, Kim Jong-un himself might even understand what capitalism is.”
Most Northern refugees in Seoul, however, fear renewed tensions on the Korean Peninsula. They believe the already strained relations between the two Koreas will worsen in the wake of Kim’s death. That is exactly what happened when Kim Il-sung, the North’s founder, died in 1994. Seoul’s conservative government refused to send condolences to Pyongyang, which in turn angered the new leadership there. For the next few years, the two Koreas were mired in bitter animosity marked by heightened military tensions. “Kim Jong-il was a terrible person,” says Lee. “But he is gone and now we have to deal with the new leader in Pyongyang for peace on the Korean Peninsula.”