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.

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters
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.

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.

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. 

“Kim Jung-un thanked them for traveling so far,” said an aide to Lee Hee-ho as she stood, proud but silent, along with two of her late husband’s sons – the elder by his first wife, the youngest her own – who had accompanied her to Pyongyang. 

Ms. Lee and Ms. Hyun exchanged no other words with Kim Jong-un, but images from North Korean television show the warmth of the welcome – Kim Jong-un shaking hands repeatedly with both of them. 

Just as important were breakfast and lunch meetings with senior officials, notably Kim Yong-nam, chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly, a job that makes him titular head of state.  It was not clear, however, if they also met Jang Song-thaek, brother-in-law of Kim Jong-il, who is thought to be the single most powerful figure – a de facto regent calling the shots, or at least tutoring the inexperienced Kim Jong-un on the ways of power in his country.

What to look for at the funeral

The line-up of those at the funeral, who shows up on North Korean TV, who’s standing next to whom, whose photographs appear in the next edition of Rodong Sinmun, the party paper, will provide vital clues as to individual power and influence. For true Pyongyang-watchers, those revelations will be the most important aspect of another day of mass grieving and funeral pageantry. 

South Korean officials in Seoul were politely upbeat about the visits – the only condolence delegations permitted to go to Pyongyang by the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak. Park Sun-jin at the unification ministry said the government would “promote and continue inter-Korean exchanges” in hopes they would “lead to reconciliation between the two side.” 

One anonymous official, however, is less sanguine. “Without the Sunshine policy of Kim Dae-jung, North Korea would not exist in its current form,” he says. “It is natural they are treated with great respect in Pyongyang."

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