The news of the death of Kim Jong Il shook many parts of the globe yesterday, most of all South Korea. My little elementary school in Suncheon was no different. Monday marked the last day of classes before winter break and the students were teeming with excitement. The usual unpredictable schedules of a last day meant that I left my 12:00 p.m. class early. Dismissed, I headed back to my office, ready to write and prepare for Winter English Camp. Naturally, I checked Facebook first. This is where I first read the news of Kim Jong Il’s death and then read every tiny update that I could get my hands on. When classes ended nearly twenty minutes later I was unsure of whether I should tell my Korean co-teacher. Was it my place? Koreans, in contrast to Americans, are quite reserved when it comes to politics, I have tried a few times to discuss North Korea, each time less successful than the previous. What would be the reaction? Joy? Fear? Renewed anger?
I went into my co-teacher’s office and waited for most of the students to leave, a few had to stay as it’s the students’ responsibility to clean the classroom each day. “I’m not really sure how to say this…but, Kim Jong Il…he died.” There was no mistaking that it was a look of happiness and almost relief that came across her face. A squeal came out. “Really?!”
It’s hard for me to imagine a Korean not being at least initially relieved at the news. This is a man who has kept South Korea and the rest of the world on edge dozens of times in the last seventeen years. Technically, the Korean War is not over, there is nothing more than a fifty eight year armistice, and his most recent act of agression was just over one year ago. Beyond that, this is a man who allowed nearly three million of his own people to starve to death while he feasted on luxury. He’s an easy guy to despise.
So upon telling my co-teacher, and upon her verification as she pulled up the Korean news website, I was a only a bit surprised when she started excitedly telling the group of fifth grade boys cleaning the room. There were five of them and each threw down their brooms and ran over. What really surprised me was the utter excitement from the boys. This particular group, although some of my favorites, are not the most studious. Their cares usually involve avoiding speaking English, demanding a game, and counting down the minutes until they can play soccer-they are exactly like kids everywhere, exactly like American kids. Yet at the news of the death of this man, it seemed to me that they knew too much of the misery that we sometimes have in this world. They started cheering, demanding more information, asking a million questions, I heard the name “Obama” come up several times. One wanted to high five me. Then, suddenly two of them started talking excitedly and ran out of the room screaming their news to the world-the only words I could understand being “Kim Jong Il.”
It was strange being the one to tell a South Korean that this dictator to the north was dead. It was one of those moments where you’re so close to history, so close to watching it unfold, that you cannot help but be a little bit changed by it. During lunch I tried to ask some of the teachers what they thought. Many teachers were unusually candid with their feelings. All were happy. Some were starting to worry what it meant. Not the nuclear worries that are currently being sensationalized in the news, but worried about the North Korean people. “I hope this leader will help them.” “I hope his son will be a better man.” But when I asked about their hopes for unification more worry crept up, foreshadowing a problem that is, in all likelihood, in Korea’s eventual future, some teachers were concerned that there would be a unification someday. “There are many people there who need a lot of help, it would be hard for our country.” Of course some welcomed the day when Korea would be unified again, but many seemed troubled at the possible absorption of twenty three million people, each in need of some type of help. I don’t want to speak too much for Koreans or argue that my school is representative of the entire country, yet the opinions of the older generations greatly favored unification, whereas the younger generations seemed much more concerned about the consequences of unification.
I cannot imagine the anxiety that many here have felt because of Kim Jong Il and his father. This war began in June of 1950 and never ended, leaving several generations of people on both sides more and more removed from what was once one nation. The ups and downs of negotiations, food aid, accusations, and acts of aggression must make this an incredibly personal and political subject for the citizens of Korea. Yet, hopefully it remains one with a peaceful resolution in the near future.
**Photo credits: ssoosay: Digi-Artist on Flickr