Death of Kim forces South Koreans to confront class divide
Sentiment in South Korea has shifted slowly against unification, as a younger generation fears the economic havoc it could wreak.
Los Angeles Times
SEOUL, South Korea — The death of Kim Jong Il is forcing North Korea's prosperous southern neighbor to confront a class divide.
People like Son Jeong Hun, a defector from the north struggling to fit in in modern Seoul, hope the dictator's demise signals a light at the end of the tunnel for their homeland.
Others like South Korean-born Kim Chi-guk, who sells imported chocolate at an exclusive department store, are afraid a train is barreling straight for them — maybe bristling with weapons, maybe jammed with millions of cousins who will cost them a lot of money.
Decades ago, the two shared a common history, with millions in each country holding memories of the Korean War. But now, only the oldest generations can clearly recall life before the partition. Sentiment in South Korea has shifted slowly against unification, as a younger generation fears the economic havoc it could wreak.
The body of Kim, who took over from his father and ruled North Korea for 17 years, lay in state Tuesday in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un, designated last year to lead the family dynasty in its third generation, made his first public appearance since his father's death. Flanked by senior leaders of the military, the ruling party and the government, he bowed before the glass coffin containing his father's body.
Although outside analysts question whether the young man is ready to succeed his father, North Korean media attempted to make his elevation seem inevitable.
The transition is likely to play out gradually, answering whether Kim Jong Un is strong enough to take control of North Korea and what that will mean. Will he make a point of belligerence to establish that he must be taken seriously? Will he move to reform North Korea and end its isolation?
In Seoul, just an hour's drive away from the demilitarized zone, those are very concrete questions. No one wants a war with North Korea, or to see its people continue to die of hunger. Still, well-established and prosperous South Koreans are unlikely to wish for dramatic change.
The 20,000 northern defectors in South Korea and those who share their concerns — particularly Christians eager to convert the North Koreans — are a distinct minority. The newcomers usually struggle to adjust, with an unemployment rate three times higher than that of the rest of the population. Just two in five say they "feel welcome" in South Korea, according to one survey.
Some Koreans said they worry about escalating tension. But those who are older than 30 remember the unexpected death in 1994 of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, a moment when many experts predicted the Stalinist nation's swift demise. As it turned out, Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, rose to power and held the country intact through repressive tactics and an all-consuming personality cult.
By the end of the decade, the two Koreas had entered the most peaceful 10-year period of coexistence in their modern history.
Many South Koreans fret over their personal security and pocketbooks. For years, North Korea has kept an arsenal of weapons aimed at their homes, schools and businesses.
And what ruin will befall South Korea's bustling economy, they ask, if the Korean peninsula is reunited and millions of impoverished North Koreans come streaming across the border?
As he tended to the chocolate display Tuesday, Kim Chi-guk spoke for many here. "If north and south are reunited," he said, "my taxes are going to be raised."
Nearby, clutching her designer bag, Park Jung-hee said the change in North Korea was all over the media, "but it doesn't affect the people around me."
In many ways, north and south have become two separate nations since the bloody 1950s conflict that divided them. South Korea has become one of the world's most-wired societies. The world's 10th-largest economy, it is a major manufacturer of cars and computer technology. Northerners' average income is less than 1 percent of their southern neighbors'.
According to an estimate made earlier this year by South Korea's Unification Ministry, stitching the two countries together would cost $1 trillion to $2.5 trillion.
"South Koreans want unification; it's just a question of whether they're willing to pay the cost, which would wreak havoc on the south's economy," said Jasper Kim, a visiting scholar at Harvard.
Kim predicted that South Korea would probably issue vouchers to northerners to use at home in case of reunification to keep them there.
Son, the defector from the north, fears North Koreans suddenly arriving in the south would be treated much the same as he has been. His status and education in the north mean little here. The only job he could land was as a hotel bell boy.
For defectors, the culture shock of leaving a land of poverty for one of the world's fastest-paced nations can be overwhelming. Many avoid computers, Son said. In theaters, when the lights go down, some fear someone might kidnap them, a throwback to life under a brutal regime. They buy everything with cash, never imaging the convenience of credit.
And while there are a few government programs to ease their transition, most defectors say they are treated as bumpkins.
Defectors are well aware that their families back in the north face punishment because of their actions. But after years of loneliness and nowhere jobs in Seoul, many question their sacrifice.
"They ask, 'Is any of this worth my family being punished? Did I make a mistake coming here?'" Son said.
Now head of a defector assistance group, the NK Vision Network, he has watched frustrated defectors pack their bags to head north again, knowing what awaits them. "I saw their level of desperation," he said. "I felt sorry for them."
Son holds out hope the culture of haves and have-nots in South Korea will one day change. But a recent survey at his teenage son's school suggested the younger generation here cares even less than their parents about the future of their northern cousins, he said.
Balloon propaganda: South Korean activists and defectors are launching giant balloons containing propaganda leaflets into North Korea. Some of the leaflets contain messages opposing another hereditary power transfer in North Korea.
Mourning allowed: South Korea said private individuals and groups, who are banned by law from praising the regime in North Korea, will be allowed to send their condolences over the death of Kim Jong Il. The wife of late President Kim Dae-jung will be allowed to make a private visit to the North. Kim Dae-jung went to North Korea in 2000 to support his so-called Sunshine Policy to defuse tension on the divided peninsula.
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