The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il caught not only the US but also South Korea unaware. At lunchtime on Monday, South Koreans found themselves watching the same live broadcast news from North Korea’s state media: Ri Chun-hee, North Korea’s star newsreader, dressed in a black gown and weeping, announced the death of the “Dear Leader.”
After learning of Kim Jong-il’s death, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak summoned his cabinet for an emergency meeting and the Unification Ministry created a new commission to track developments up in the north. But the general message, says Jason Strother in Foreign Policy, has been to “stay calm, the situation is under control, go about your normal lives.”
Indifference About Reunification Among Younger South Koreans
Many South Koreans, especially those from the younger generations, have indeed been doing so. Strother quotes 29-year-old piano instructor Choi Young Joo’s response after hearing the news on the radio:
“I thought ‘oh wow, he’s dead,’ not a big difference than before. I sent my friends a group chat message about it. They just asked me ‘what are we going to do for dinner?’”
Strother cites Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst at Kookmin University in Seoul, regarding the younger Korean generation’s lack of interest in reunification. To 20-somethings engrossed in their studies or searching for a job, Lankov says that “North Korea is increasingly seen as a distant country, an irrelevant place, a poor dictatorship whose population happens to speak the same language.” He also notes that, should reunification occur, South Korea would bear most of the costs. Merging the two country’s economies — North Korea’s has been called “medieval” — could require as much as $203 billion.
In contrast to the indifference that Strother notes in younger South Koreans are the views of 22,000 North Korean defectors, some of whom have responded to the news of Kim Jong-il’s death with disbelief. Kim Hung-kwang of North Korean Intellectual Solidarity, whose members are “former North Korean elites,” says that North Korea can now either become more engaged with the international community, or become even more militarized. Intellectual Solidarity sends DVDs, USB sticks and other information about the outside world to North Korea, in the hope that doing so might foment an uprising eventually. Another group of defectors, North Korean People’s Liberation Front, is made up of former soldiers from North Korea’s million-man army and believes that “the only way to end the regime in Pyongyang is to take out its leadership.”
South Korean Military Put On a State of Alert
The “apathy” of younger South Koreans has posed a challenge for the Unification Ministry. The two countries are technically at war and, since 1948, have been divided at the 38th parallel. After the Korean War ended in 1953, both sides agreed to move their troops back and create a 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ). But some 2 million troops patrol both sides of the border; the US has 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea. In March 2010, a North Korean warship was reported to have sunk a South Korean submarine.
South Korea has put its military on a state of alert following the announcement of Kim Jong-il’s death.
Photo of Panmunjeom at the DMZ by LuMag00, who comments: "Grey building in background is N. Korea. Blue building is UN. S. Korean guard outside and concrete barriers showing the dividing line in between the buildings."
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