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.

Jae C. Hong/AP
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.

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.

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.

“They have lived in poverty so long that they have no fear of being killed by leaving to seek a better life,” he says. “We here in the US are taking this moment to prepare for the arrival of lots of émigrés.”

When told of a YouTube video that shows a North Korean news anchor breaking down at the news of Kim’s death – as well as extended footage of North Koreans sobbing and dropping to their knees all over Pyongyang – pharmacist Casey Choi says, “I don’t really believe they are upset like that over there. This was a terribly repressive regime which took care of a tiny percentage and let the rest rot,” she says.

Regardless of Kim's shortcomings, demonizing him will not help improve Korean relations, says Seoul-born Christine Ahn, executive director for the Korea Policy Institute, a volunteer group to promote Korean-American interests, based in Los Angeles.

Though the North is widely seen as being a highly bellicose country guided by generals and military advisers, “We are hopeful that we can promote a more nuanced and complex understanding of the situation,” she says.

She notes that her social networks have been active the past two days with discussions about how to advance a discussion about reconciliation and reunification.

While the dream of a single nation endures inside the Korean-American community, RadioKorea staffer Michael Kim points out that, even if reunification were to happen, the prospect of linking the two nations would be daunting. He points to Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“I have a friend in Leipzig” in the former East Germany, he says, “who talks about how much it hurt both East and West Germany, and how the country is still recovering.”

Nobody should expect that the tiny North Korean economy, which has a gross domestic product of some $40 billion, could mesh easily with the South Korean economy, which is valued at roughly $1 trillion.

Perhaps the uncertainty is best summed by Tae Oh, a first generation Korean-American in his 50s. Working at a Korean bookstore, he shakes his head, saying, “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Maybe war, maybe peace, maybe it will all stay the same.” 

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