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Kim Jong-il death sparks hopes of reunification for Korean-Americans

Korean-Americans say North Korea is in an uncertain position after the death of leader Kim Jong-il, but they hope that the event could ultimately lead to the reunification of North and South.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer, Staff writer / December 19, 2011

A stack of Korea Times L.A. newspapers reporting the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sit in a bin in Los Angeles Monday.

Jae C. Hong/AP

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Los Angeles

The largest community of Koreans outside Asia is taking the news of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death with equal parts elation and caution.

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About 120,000 Koreans live in the three-square-mile enclave near downtown Los Angeles, and interviews in Koreatown Monday point to Mr. Kim's deep unpopularity here. To a person, those interviewed were delighted that Kim is gone and hope that the event could bring North and South Korea closer to reunification.

But they also acknowledged that war was an equally possible outcome, given the potential for instability in the reign of Kim's 20-something son and successor, Kim Jong-un.

“Older people are relieved that he’s gone,” says general contractor Jin Park, who was 2 years old when the country was divided and has two brothers living just south of the demilitarized zone dividing the Koreas.

Sitting with three colleagues at the Vermont Galleria, Mr. Park says Kim was even more repressive than he was portrayed in the West and his friends nod. "But we really don’t know what his son will do," he adds. "He could be worse than his dad. He’s so young, I don’t think anyone feels he will last long in power.”

In his second-floor office at the Korea Daily, reporter Hwashik Bong, who has parents and grandparents in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, says he is “afraid to cheer this news” because he thinks Korea is now the most dangerous spot on earth.

“Every time a leader dies there, they try to make trouble by provoking a quarrel, and I suspect as much now," he says.

The word from his relatives in the country is that North Korea will change to some form of collective power, he adds. 

For many North Koreans, now might be the time to flee, says Sunny Hwan Cho, chairman for American-Korean Divided Families. He expects about 50,000 North Koreans to leave for China and Japan – with hopes of going further.

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