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Kim’s death sparks fears, hopes in S. Korea

Kim Yu-sik fled North Korea for the South some 60 years ago during the war that divided the peninsula. The 75-year-old now hopes Kim Jong-il’s death will finally allow him to live a dream and return to his hometown.

“What I miss ― and what I still vividly remember ― is when I got together with my friends on my way to school in the morning and the shouting and fun we had as we walked to class,’’ he said.

But for 55-year-old travel agent Kim Jung-yeon, the prospect of Kim’s untested, 20-something son leading North Korea is cause for fear, not optimism.

“He knows so little about the world,’’ she said Tuesday, “so he may be even more dangerous than his father.’’

South Koreans, who have the biggest stake in their northern rival’s stability, wait nervously to see what the change in leadership in Pyongyang holds for them: whether it paves the way for reconciliation, or leads to further instability and conflict between the bitter enemies.

On the streets of the South Korean capital, many have firm feelings about both possibilities.

“North Korea will continue its menacing threats and it will again launch a provocation’’ like the two attacks blamed on North Korea in 2010 that led to fears of another war on the peninsula, said Kim Jong-sun, an 86-year-old Korean War veteran with a heavily wrinkled face, as he strolled through a Seoul park.

“They won’t abandon their belligerent war threat, and we have to live with such North Korea fears.’’

North Korea has always been an uneasy presence for South Koreans. Even as the South has transformed from autocracy and poverty to a booming economy and vibrant democracy, the nation ruled by Kim Jong-il and his father has often seemed to outsiders as a vestige of the Cold War, beset by chronic food shortages.

But these two enemies have a shared history, a shared culture, and even families split on two sides of the world’s most heavily militarized border.

“We are one nation, and I hope we achieve reunification,’’ said Lee Ae-young, a 49-year-old professional photographer in Seoul. “I don’t know why we are living like this, divided along the border.’’

Seoul is only 200 kilometers from Pyongyang, but they are separated by bitter differences and a long history of bloodshed. The peninsula is still technically at war because the devastating 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, and for the past 17 years, Kim Jong-il has been an omnipresent, often threatening figure, for South Koreans. He took power in 1994 after spending 20 years preparing for leadership.

Kim Jong-un has had no such lengthy transition, and little is known of him, the policies he might set or even his exact age.

Despite their worries, South Koreans aren’t panicking this week. Many rushed to supermarkets to stock up on instant noodles and other provisions after Pyongyang abandoned an international nonproliferation treaty in 1993 and North Korea founder Kim Il-sung ― Kim Jong Il’s father ― died of a heart attack the next year.