BY JASON STROTHER – The South Korean government is calling for calm following the death of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il. The announcement today by the North Korea’s official broadcasting service caught most South Koreans by surprise and now casts uncertainty over future engagement with Pyongyang.
The South Korean government called an emergency cabinet meeting immediately following the announcement. Even though Kim Jong Il was rumored to be ill for some years, almost everyone here was caught off guard.
During a briefing, Choi Bo-sun, media secretary of the South Korean Ministry Unification, said the government is following protocol.
He says the way the government needs to cope with this type of crisis is already laid out in the ministry’s manual. A monitoring team will watch all developments related to North Korea.
In a separate statement, President Lee Myung Bak urges citizens to be calm and carry on their normal lives.
In Seoul, most South Koreans appeared to be heeding the president’s words.
Despite the uncertainty Kim Jong Ils death casts on the future of North-South engagement as well as ongoing efforts to end Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, many people here are unconcerned about developments up north.
Yu Mi Hyun, 25, who first heard about the news today at the office, says she didn’t think it was a big deal at first. But after talking with friends in the military, she now thinks the situation is serious and needs to be watched.
Seong, 56, seems more concerned about how KimJong Il’s death will effect the South Korean economy. He says there are going to be a lot of changes in the markets because of this and that all sectors will be affected.
Seong has reason to be concerned. When news broke of Kim Jong-il’s death, South Korea’s KOSPI index dropped by 3.2 percent.
Even if many South Koreans seem apathetic to the developments in North Korea, one segment of the population is watching closely.
For many in the 22,000-strong community of North Korean defectors, Kim Jong-il’s death is long-awaited good news.
Kim Hung-kwan is president of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, an organization comprised of former government figures, academics and others who have defected to the south. He says it’s too early to determine if Kim Jong-il’s death will result in any changes for the better.
Kim Hung-kwan believes the North will either become more open to the international community, or more militarized under a dictatorship that’s more dangerous than before.
He believes now is the time to reach out to North Koreans and counter Pyongyang’s official propaganda about their late ruler. Kim Hung-kwan says that, for defectors like him, the trip back to their hometowns in the North might be getting closer.