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23 December 2011 / SP

LiNK: North Korean Refugees on Kim Jong-il’s Death and the Succession

The sudden death of Kim Jong-il has triggered a deluge of early commentary and analysis on what this may mean for North Korea and the region. The North Koreans themselves are of course the people who will be affected most by this development, but the voice of the North Korean people has been severely lacking.  While the regime has always been comprised of much more than one man, the death of the leader does usher in a new period of increased uncertainty for the North Korean people.

It is impossible to go inside North Korea to interview the people regarding their true feelings on the situation. However LiNK has spoken with refugees who have recently left the country. It should be noted that North Korean refugees cannot be considered to be necessarily representative of the general population, as the majority have come from border regions and therefore their views may be different from those living in Pyongyang or elsewhere.

LiNK works on the ground helping North Korean refugees who have escaped into China, bringing them out through a ‘modern-day underground railroad’ to its shelter in Southeast Asia where refugees can then seek safe resettlement in third nations. Prior to Kim Jong-il’s death, we had interviewed refugees who came through our shelter on their attitudes towards the succession. Some of the refugees had left North Korea as recently as November 2011. Over the past few hours we have contacted further refugees for their comments and thoughts upon hearing about Kim Jong-il’s death.

North Korean Refugees on the Succession:

“Some North Korean people believe that if Kim Jong-un takes over North Korean politics, he will be even worse than his father.”

“Kim Jong-un has been presented to us by the state media as a military figure.”

“Of course, people think badly of the succession. How could you think it is a good thing? The Government is not providing the people with any kind of standard of living.”

“The North Korean people just hope to live in freedom and to live well.”

North Korean refugees’ reaction to the death of Kim Jong-il:

“The North Korean people will currently be putting on feigned shows of sadness. This is very different to the death of Kim Il-sung. Kim Il-sung founded the country and the people think that he did a lot for them. Times have been hard during Kim Jong-il’s reign. People have woken up and are much more aware of the reality of the country and the leadership now. People will outwardly be showing sadness but inwardly they will feel very differently. The people fear that anything but the required show of sadness could get them killed… The most likely outcome of the succession is that Kim Jong-un will continue in the same mold as his father.”
– Shin Jong-wook, M, 20.*

“This is not a happy or a sad event for me. But it is a big moment. This will be a shocking moment for the North Korean people. But there will not be as much grief as when Kim Il-sung died. Of course, people will have to pretend to be sad, and people may get caught up in the atmosphere, but it is not true sadness.”
– Kim Moon-soo, M, 21.

“I worry about what this will mean for my relatives back inside and for the North Korean people. I fear that the relatives of defectors will be persecuted more. They are closing the markets and there are bound to be a lot of staged political events, so for the people that are already struggling things are going to get even harder.”
– Park Yun-joo, F, 31.

“I didn’t feel anything in particular when I heard the news. But I am worried that my family in North Korea will suffer because of the change in leadership.”
– Lee Sunghee, F, 39.

“It was a big surprise. I don’t know what the next leadership will be like, so its a big worry. Some people will be sad because the leader of the country has died. That is normal. But some people will probably be glad that he has died.”
– Park Il-hyung, M, 37.

“I don’t care that Kim Jong-il is dead. In North Korea now, the norm dictates that everyone has to cry. But people don’t have any positive feelings towards Kim Jong-il. The majority of people will be faking their tears.”
– Nam Gum-sook, F, 19.

“If you don’t cry in North Korea after the leader dies, then you could come under suspicion as being against the Government. Then you have to live with that label and suspicion for the rest of your life.”
– Kang Bohee, F, 21.


*The names of refugees have been changed to protect their identities and ensure the security of relatives still inside North Korea.


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