North Korean defectors in Seoul were overcome with joy on news of Kim Jong-il’s death Monday, but non-profit groups here are watching closely to discover how life will be for ordinary people under the communist regime’s new leadership.
“When I heard the news I could not have been more happy,” said North Korean defector Park Seo-hyun, dismissing mass displays of grief on the streets of Pyongyang over Kim’s heart attack as forced emotional displays required by the dictatorial regime.
But the worker for People for Successful Corean Reunification (PSCORE) did not think the communist leader’s death automatically spelled a better life for North Koreans.
“If the regime is not changing and the system remains the same, life will be more difficult than before,” the Seoul resident said. “The whole system needs to be changed.”
PSCORE Secretary General Nam Bada said the defector community his group supports was hopeful but uncertain whether those they left behind would be better off following the dictator’s fatal heart attack on Saturday.
“Some defectors now think that reunification will come soon because Kim Jong-il was the key man in the North Korean system, but right now there are many different voices about that,” he said. “Some defectors hope that they can return to their hometown next year. Most of them are really celebrating the news.”
Geoffrey See, managing director of the Choson Exchange, which supports economic development in North Korea through business, economic and legal training, said the new leadership could open up the country in some respects.
“In the short term, we do expect disruption and heightened sensitivity to foreign interaction and programs,” he said, anticipating that some Choson Exchange programs scheduled for January would be delayed.
See predicted a communications lockdown as the new regime consolidated power, but said that Pyongyang could then reach out to other countries to present good external relations as part of an upbeat message approaching Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday next April.
“It is important for countries to reach out early and aggressively with a variety of programs and opportunities to offer a new generation of leadership an ‘open path’ to positive change,” he said.
“It will also be easier for leaders in the U.S. and South Korea to reach an agreement with North Korea unburdened by the presence of Kim Jong-il.”
See also thought the country under new leadership could become more open to the fiscal changes recommended through Choson Exchange programs.
“When there is a lot of change in a system it provides opportunities for people to take a more solid approach to the economic development that they are trying to implement,” he said.
Meanwhile, U.S. non-profit the Fuller Center for Housing has put its construction project near Pyongyang on hold.
“We hope to resume work in North Korea as soon as possible, but we will have to let the dust settle on this transition before deciding how to proceed,” an FCH spokesman said, adding that the six American volunteers who recently visited the country to help start work on 50 houses at a tree nursery had returned home safely before Kim’s death.
Other NGOs supporting children in the country were yet to hear from workers there, and were anxious for news.
“We can only hope that there will be a lot more openness in the country in the future,” said a worker for the Love North Korean Children charity, which funds bakeries in North Korea providing bread for school kids.
“We can only hope that it is the beginning of much better days for North Korea.”
Tim Peters, who founded Helping Hands Korea which aids North Korean defectors in China, thought any new direction in leadership would take a long time to impact the lives of ordinary North Koreans.
“It is going to take time for these changes to be felt at a low level across society. We can always hope, but I myself am rather doubtful whether we are going to see an opening up of the country or the economy,” he said.
He expected more people would wish to flee the country following Kim’s death, in spite of recent crackdowns by North Korea and China making it harder to cross the border.
“More and more people will continue to see defecting as the most reasonable measure for them to take.”
The Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights (NKnet) said Kim’s death could provide new hope for the North Korean people, while spokesman Park Jin-geol slammed the Seoul government’s words of condolence expressed to the North Korean people, though not to the Pyongyang regime.
“It does not make sense to say those words after the death of a dictator, the North Korean people should not be sad at this time, they should be happy or celebrating,” Park said.
By Kirsty Taylor