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With Kim's Death, Defectors See Chance For Change

Dec 21, 2011
Originally published on December 21, 2011 9:09 pm

While North Korean mourners trudged through snow in Pyongyang to pay last respects to their "Dear Leader," defectors from the North now in South Korea are celebrating the sudden death of Kim Jong Il, who died from a heart attack this past weekend.

And as the outside world tries to figure out how much control his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, has over the nuclear-armed state, the defectors are focusing on trying to kickstart a revolution in North Korea.

On Wednesday in Imjinggak, South Korea, near the Demilitarized Zone separating the North and South, a green jeep pulled up in a parking garage amid blaring military music. Women in matching camouflage fatigues, dark glasses and lipstick leaped out. All are North Korean defectors, and they came for a celebration.

"We welcome the miserable death of dictator Kim Jong Il!" the activists shouted. They were led by Park Sang-hak, a prominent defector. Earlier this year, an assassination attempt against him was foiled, when a North Korean spy was caught with poison-tipped needles. On Wednesday, Park criticized the international community's emphasis on a peaceful transition.

"The U.S. and China say North Korea has to stay stable. For 60 years, people have suffered under the world's worst dictatorship. Now is the perfect opportunity for them to win their freedom. How can you keep watching such suffering for the next few decades?" Park said.

Window Of Opportunity?

There are now more than 20,000 defectors in South Korea, and 30 groups were represented at Wednesday's event. They believe that Kim Jong Il's sudden death has opened a window of opportunity that should be exploited. Son Jeong-hun, one of the rally organizers, predicts that conflict among North Korea's elite factions could break out by early next year.

"As far as I know, there are a few progressive commanders in the North Korean army who want to change the situation there. In my opinion, Kim Jong Un's lack of experience means he doesn't have the power to control party members in their 50s and 60s," Son says.

That may be wishful thinking. So far the succession appears to be going smoothly, with many analysts believing the army has pledged its loyalty to a collective leadership around Kim Jong Un.

But North Korea is not taking any chances. On Wednesday it put its troops on alert. Shin Ju-hyun is the chief editor of the Daily NK website, which has contacts inside the North. He says draconian security measures have been put in place inside North Korea.

"Groups of more than five North Koreans are not allowed to gather together. And armed policemen are stationed every one hundred meters in every street. They also limit the number of people in every alley," Shin says.

More Than Symbolic Protest

At the rally in Imjinggak, protesters inflated 30-foot-high balloons printed with slogans such as "Let's end three generations of dictatorship" to be released across the border into North Korea.

After more slogan-shouting, the defectors launched the balloons and leaflets. The leaflets list the Kim family's excesses, for example one son's love of diamonds and Eric Clapton concerts. They also juxtapose pictures of Kim Jong Il with Libya's Moammar Gadhaif and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and provide descriptions of the Arab Spring.

The act of releasing these balloons seems a largely symbolic gesture. But defector Hahn Il-seong disagrees.

"These are enormously, enormously helpful. The North Koreans are told that South Korea poisons these leaflets, and they're not allowed to touch them. But sometimes we put pictures of defectors on these leaflets, and one of my nephews inside the North told me he actually saw my picture this way, and knew I was living in the South," Hahn says.

These balloon launches have unsettled the South as well. Its National Intelligence Service urged the defectors to cancel Wednesday's launch for fear of antagonizing Pyongyang at a time of mourning. But the defectors refused to back down: antagonizing Pyongyang and causing strains to emerge is exactly what they want.

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