By Kim Kyung-Hoon
Nobody knows when and where death will visit us.
The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shows that this phrase applies to everyone. Death is inevitable, even for an absolute ruler who was believed to be an eternal creature in his reclusive kingdom and who provoked the international community with a nuclear weapons program and brinkmanship.
Hours after the tearful announcement by North Korea state TV of their Great Comrade Dear Leader’s death, I was on a flight from Tokyo to Seoul to reinforce our Seoul bureau. On the flight, I recalled the chaos when North Korea’s founder and Kim Jong-il’s father Kim Il-sung died in 1994. At that time, most Koreans were haunted by fear of a possible outbreak of war. This fear made South Koreans rush to shops to stockpile basic necessities. It also triggered an intense debate between conservatives and pro-unification activists who insisted on a condolence call for the main culprit of the Korean civil war. My mother stayed awake at night worrying about the outbreak of war because I was supposed to go to mandatory military service in just a few months.
However, what I found after landing in Seoul was different from what I had worried about and imagined. There were no empty shelves and no fierce clashes between riot police and pro-unification activists on the streets. Signs of chaos and rejoicing over the death of a mortal enemy were hardly seen in my country as Seoul cautiously responded to the abrupt news that came at the end of 2011.
As I searched for visual subjects to illustrate this calm response, I met several North Korean defectors who had witnessed the death of Kim Il-sung in North Korea and now were viewing his successor Kim Jong-il’s death from the South. Most North Korean refugees who presently live in South Korea are not political asylum seekers but instead escaped from starvation. They said they experienced disbelief when they first heard the news of the death of the dictator but soon the disbelief turned to delight.
An orphan boy who lost his father in a life-threatening escape said he was filled with pleasure as if he finally had revenge for his father’s death. However, most said their joy soon changed to concern as they began to think that the suffering of the North Koreans would continue under the rule of Kim’s son and successor Kim Jong-un. Even though the new young leader has tasted the freedom and wealth of developed and open countries in Europe during his adolescence, this new supreme commander who ordered his troops to be human shields and bombs to defend his rule will hardly take a path of reform or open his kingdom. An uprising from North Koreans who have been brainwashed for more than half a century is beyond imagination, the defectors said.