Life goes on in South Korea after Kim Jong Il's death
Stars and Stripes
SEOUL — As world leaders try to read the tea leaves on whether the death of Kim Jong Il will plunge North Korea into chaos or prompt the reclusive nation to lash out against its enemies, it was business as usual Tuesday for South Koreans, who seem the take the unpredictability of the North in stride.
In the capital, children in school uniforms packed into city buses, suit-clad men and women scrambled back from lunch to their offices. Shops were adorned with Christmas-themed window displays.
As she shopped for blankets at a Dongdaemun market, 59-year-old housewife Kim Phil-ja said she thought Kim Jong Il’s death was due to the stress created by his leadership style.
“Human beings live long if they feel at ease, but Kim Jong Il’s dictatorship lasted too long and made North Koreans live in poverty and unhappiness,” she said. “I feel it was time for him to die.”
As for the future, she said, “I am not anxious, because our country is doing well with its defenses and keeping us safe.”
For the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed at bases across South Korea, life – on the surface at least – appeared to be normal Tuesday.
On at least a couple of bases, the annual Christmas lull in activity was apparent. Normally crowded food courts were relatively empty, parking spaces were easily had and helicopter and heavy equipment movement appeared to be at a minimum.
Since the announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death, U.S. Forces Korea officials have been keeping a low-profile and maintaining the appearance that nothing unusual is afoot.
A USFK spokesman said Tuesday that no Christmas leaves had been postponed or canceled, and U.S. troop levels have not been appreciably thinned due to the holiday.
“We continue to operate under armistice conditions and maintain a level of readiness expected of us on any given day,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Demilitarized Zone-area city of Paju said the hours since Kim Jong Il’s death have been busy, with soldiers, police and civil servants coordinating their efforts and working extended shifts due to the raised alert level for South Korean military and Lee’s “emergency response” declaration.
In addition, some of the city’s year-end ceremonies have been canceled.
However, she said, city residents do not appear overly concerned. There have been no telephone calls or visits to city offices from concerned residents, she said.
“There is an atmosphere that everything is under control,” the Paju spokeswoman said. “I can’t say the residents are not concerned at all … but they don’t seem to be surprised or agitated.”
She said that might be because South Koreans have been toughened by going through the North’s 2010 sinking of a South Korean naval ship and shelling of a Yellow Sea island – attacks that left 50 people dead.
South Koreans interviewed Tuesday offered their hopes and expectations for the future now that North Korea’s iron-fisted dictator is dead, but expressed no anxiety.
Park Jun-yeong, 22, a South Korean policeman, said he expects trouble related to North Korea, but not for a while.
“I think the people will eventually turn their backs on Kim Jong Un,” he said. “I see North Korea collapsing sooner or later, perhaps within five years.
“I think North Koreans will eventually find conditions too unbearable and they will rise up from the inside,” Park said.
Kim Jaegug, a 16-year-old high school student attending a school event Tuesday said, “Some of my friends said a war might happen because of Kim’s death and Kim Jong Un taking over, but I’m not nervous.
“Kim Jong Un may like democracy, from what I’ve seen on the news,” the student said. “But he’s still young and he has a lot of work to do to take control over the whole country.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Alfredo Jimenez contributed to this report.