SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — More than 21,000 North Koreans now live in South Korea. For many, the news of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death stirred mixed emotions.
Several interviewed in Seoul by The Associated Press described a burst of joy upon hearing that Kim had died, but also a surge of unease over the fate of relatives and friends and even a shadow of homesickness.
There was celebration — one man had drinks with a friend— and hope for a better future for their homeland. For one woman, there was sadness as she envisioned little girls cramming to memorize the Kims’ feats.
South Korea is no paradise for the defectors either; facing prejudice and lacking job skills, they rarely feel welcomed by their capitalist brethren.
Here, in their own words, are what three of them had to say:
“I felt rather calm after hearing of Kim Jong Il’s death,” said Song Byeok, 42, a painter who learned his art drawing propaganda posters in North Korea. “I thought to myself about him: ‘You, too, are human in the end.’
“It was his destiny. He couldn’t avoid it. ... He was praised like a god, but in the end, he was only a human who fell like an autumn leaf.”
Desperate for food in 2000, Song and his father tried to cross the river into China — not to defect but just to get something to eat from relatives on the Chinese side.
He still believed Kim Jong Il was a good leader.
However, when his father was swept away by the current and drowned, border guards ignored Song’s pleas to help rescue him; instead they beat Song up and detained him. The experience persuaded him to leave for good in 2002.
“I thought to myself after hearing Kim died that a wind of democratization may finally blow in North Korea,” he said. “Reforms may come because Kim Jong Il has died.
“Kim Jong Un is young and he may lean toward reforms. But I still think he may not last long because he’s too inexperienced. He only had a year or so to be groomed as successor.
“It may have been better for him if Kim Jong Il had lasted longer.”
Song Byeok is the name he paints under and is widely known by in South Korea; he refused to divulge his real name for fear of retaliation against relatives and friends still in North Korea.
“I believed North Korea was the best country in the world,” said Lee Hyeon-seo, who was 13 when late President Kim Il Sung, father of Kim Jong Il, died in 1994.
“I really believed in the theory of self-reliance,” she said.
“When Kim Il Sung died, I saw many foreign guests crying on TV, which made me feel like Kim Il Sung was a god,” she said. “But as days passed, I felt I wasn’t as sad as I was supposed to when I stood in front of his statue.
“Everybody was crying but I couldn’t cry, so I dabbed my face with my spit. It was a hot day, and some girl fainted and was sent to a hospital.”
Lee, now 30, fled the North in the mid-1990s and lived for a decade in China before moving to South Korea in 2008. Now she studies Chinese at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
“I remember the propaganda education vividly even though I was a girl,” she said. “In North Korea, excelling at math or English is less important than being good at the history of Kim Il Sung’s revolutionary steps. Now I know it’s fake, but we had to cram as much of the history in our heads as possible. We struggled to get high marks on the subject in school.
“I used to believe unification was a pipe dream. But now it may be possible.”
“I know a person’s death is usually something that shouldn’t be celebrated, but this time it was completely different,” said Kim Seung-cheol, 50.
“Kim’s death meant that North Korea would start changing,” he said. “It was a hopeful sign for a change.”
Kim went out with a friend to celebrate over sausages and “soju,” a popular Korean liquor. They laughed with joy.
When he defected 20 years ago, he left behind his wife and son.
“If unification happens, I would like to find out if my son is still alive,” he said. “If I find him, I will ask him to hit me for leaving him.
“And if I’m reunited with my wife, I will sing a song out of joy. But I have to ask forgiveness of her, because I’ve married another woman here in South Korea.”