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On North Korea's border: foreboding about what's next

South Koreans wonder if North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, might cause more trouble abroad to divert attention from political instability at home.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / December 27, 2011

South Korean soldiers stand guard on the southern part of the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul, Thursday. North Korea's shift in leadership to Kim Jong-un after the death of Kim Jong-il leaves many uncertainties.

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters

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Dorasan, South Korea

At this major gateway between South and North Korea, tomorrow's funeral in Pyongyang for North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il evokes memories of when North Korean troops poured south in the first days of the Korean War.

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Against a distant backdrop of ridges stripped bare by desperate North Koreans looking for firewood, people wonder if North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-il’s third son and heir, Kim Jong-un, thrust into power while in his late 20’s, might foment more trouble to divert attention from political instability at home.

“Kim Jong-il’s death is one thing, but what worries me is the condition of North Korea now that he’s gone,” says a clerk in the spacious “immigration office” near the last station on the unused line going North. “It’s going to be dangerous up there. No one knows what will happen.”
       

A grizzled guard who fled south with his parents as a boy in the days after the invasion echoes that fear. “They would blame everything on the South,” he says, looking over the vast train station, an edifice in glass, steel, marble, and granite. Several times a day, near-empty trains bring curiosity-seekers and workers on the way to the Kaesong economic zone, a complex of more than 100 small factories staffed by about 50,000 North Koreans several miles above the demilitarized zone that has separated the two Koreans ever since the Korean War. ”They could do anything.”

Significance of the widows in black

On the eve of Kim Jong-il’s funeral, however, the immigration center was crowded as two widows in black, with relatives and retainers, arrived after spending the better part of two days in North Korea. They had gone, they said, only to express condolences before the glass-enclosed coffin of Kim Jong-il in the same memorial hall in Pyongyang that contains the embalmed remains of his long-ruling father, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. 

Still, there is no doubt of the significance of the visit of Lee Hee-ho, the 90-year-old widow of Kim Dae-jung, the South Korean president who initiated the Sunshine policy of reconciliation with the North, and Hyun Jeong-eun, whose husband had committed suicide in 2003 after his indictment for channeling payoffs to bring about the June 2000 summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il. 

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