North Korea in Mourning
By Jongdae Kim 07Ox 11C
After finishing my last exam as a college student at Emory, I was enjoying a few weeks at home in Seoul when the phone rang a few minutes past noon on Monday, December 19. It was my brother, who was completing his military service in the Republic of Korea Army at the time.
“Kim Jong Il just died,” he said. I immediately turned to my computer, and indeed the news already had spread across the internet. According to the Korean Central Television—North Korea’s official state news broadcaster—the cause of death was a heart attack. (His actual death occurred two days earlier but was successfully kept secret until the official announcement on the 19th.) There had been signs of the deterioration of Chairman Kim’s health after his stroke in 2008, and rumor had been circulating that it would not be easy for him to make it another three years. However, the news was still sudden and unexpected, leaving the Korean peninsula in panic mode.
Tension between the two Koreas has been rising the past few years, tightening around flashpoints like the controversial sinking of a South Korean ship in March 2010 and the North Korean shelling of a South Korean island in November that same year. The South Korean government has taken a harder stance against North Korea in recent years, and the inter-Korean conversations have been stalling. In the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death, South Korea expressed reserved regret to the people of North Korea and declined to send an official delegation, instead allowing two private groups to visit Pyongyang during the mourning period.
North Korea previously had sent two official delegations to funerals in South Korea: in 2001 to the funeral of the founder and honorary chair of Hyundai Group, Chung Ju-yung, and in 2009 to the national funeral of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung—my grandfather. Along with my grandmother, father, uncle, and aunt, I was included in the delegation to Pyongyang as the eldest grandson of President Kim Dae-jung.
Growing up in Seoul, I have always held out hope, perhaps naïvely, for the reunification of the Koreas. I remember learning and singing the famous song “Our Hope Is Reunification” in kindergarten. But I also remember being made to repeat “I do not like communists” in elementary school, without fully understanding the meaning and implications of the refrain. Regardless, it seems as if the ironic coexistence of hostility and longing toward North Korea has always been embedded in our lives. Culturally, we have been the same people sharing the same heritage for 5,000 years, but politically we have been made enemies for the last six decades.
That is part of why many South Koreans were confused about how to react to the death of Kim Jong Il. Some said we should be celebrating the death of our enemy, while others thought it was a courtesy to pay condolences in recognition of the grief of the North Korean people. For me and my family, because Chairman Kim had expressed his deep regrets when my grandfather passed away, it was appropriate to pay respect in return.
We left Seoul on a bus bound for Pyongyang on the morning of December 26. We took the land route via Kaesong Industrial Complex, which was built by South Korea near the border in North Korean territory during my grandfather’s presidency in order to promote industrial collaboration and economic partnership between the two nations.
It didn’t take long to get to the Inter-Korean Transit Office in Paju. The office was already crowded with reporters and cameramen yelling at each other and competing for the best spots for photos. Our visit to North Korea generated a great deal of controversy in South Korea, especially at a time when inter-Korean relations were worsening.
We got back on the bus to drive to the North Korean side of the Inter-Korean Transit Office. It was much quieter than the South Korean side, without the throngs of reporters—only one or two cameras. Instead, when we walked into the building, there was a crowd of North Korean officers standing on the second-floor balcony, trying to get a glimpse of the delegations from South Korea. We were greeted by Won Dong-yeon, deputy chief of the Korea Asia Pacific Peace Committee. After we passed through the building, we were switched into North Korean vehicles.
I was literally only a few steps away from South Korea, but the instantly visible physical differences made the border seem much farther away.
It was a cold day, and the windows in the car were covered with frost, but on the road to Pyongyang I tried hard to capture in my mind’s eye as much of my surroundings as I could. The first thing I noticed was that there were no trees on the mountains. I saw people carrying A-frames (a carriage tool mainly used to carry wood) on their backs, loaded with firewood. There were houses and rice fields under the bare hills, possibly leaving them defenseless against the damages from seasonal monsoons during the summer. Although I was only seeing a small part of North Korea, there was already a big difference compared to the South Korean countryside.
The difference became much clearer when we entered the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just outside of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The complex was built in a modern architectural style and had large, paved concrete roads and South Korean supermarket chains. But just a few steps outside the complex toward Kaesong city, it was a different world. Some roads were unpaved, there were no traffic lights, and paint was peeling off the walls of the buildings.
Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, was also a vastly different place from Seoul. The corporate advertisements and billboards that bombard South Koreans in Seoul were replaced by state propaganda paintings in Pyongyang. Police officers on our streets were replaced with military officers there.
Although I knew there were extreme differences between the two Koreas, actually visiting North Korea and witnessing the difference was still a shock. Because of its geographical location, throughout history the Korean peninsula often has been left vulnerable to the decisions of superpowers. This was the case in the division of the country; regardless of the will of the Korean people, the United States and the Soviet Union drew a line along the 38th parallel across the peninsula after World War II and compromised on the temporary governance of Korea when it became independent of Japan. With the establishment of separate governments on each side of the line in 1948, the parallel became a practical border leading to the Korean War in 1950. The seemingly simple and temporary decision made almost 70 years ago has changed the entire destiny of the peninsula.
Our delegation was received with respect by the North. We stayed at the Baekhwawon State Guest House, where both South Korean presidents—my grandfather and President Roh Moo-hyun—had stayed during the inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007. During our two-day visit, we also met the secretary of the Worker’s Party, Kim Yang-gon, and the de facto head of state, Kim Yong-nam. In our rooms, we had access to South Korean television channels, which were reporting on our visit and speculating about our schedule in Pyongyang. Everyone we met tried to make us feel as comfortable as they could and sincerely seemed to appreciate our efforts to visit during the mourning period.
One of the more interesting parts of the trip was actually seeing the North Korean soldiers along the way. Just two years before, I was still a soldier in the Republic of Korea Army. Every night I was on surveillance against possible aggression by the North Korean military force and had to be on alert for even the smallest suspicious movement from the North. The North Korean soldiers would have been my main enemies whom I would have had to kill or been killed by in a war-like situation.
Now, however, the soldiers stopped when our vehicles passed by and saluted us. Still in the reserve forces of South Korea, I had many mixed feelings as I received salutes from North Korean soldiers, which are signs of loyalty and respect. Among those feelings was the same sympathy I feel when I see a South Korean soldier on his surveillance duty at the DMZ. North and South Korean soldiers may wear different uniforms and follow different commands, but they have the same young and naïve expressions on their faces. After all, they are in the same position I was three years ago, forced—willingly or unwillingly—by the cruel situation on the Korean peninsula to serve in the military for a certain period of time, and forced to point rifles toward each other.
And I had a similar kind of feeling when I met Kim Jong Un, the new leader of North Korea, for a brief moment.
We were taken to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the body of Kim Il Sung was preserved and the body of Kim Jong Il was now lying. With the military band playing the funeral music and a crowd of mourners paying condolences, the mood was grim. I looked at one of the soldiers on guard, standing still in the corridor, and a teardrop was flowing down his cheek. Watching the footage from the funeral of Kim Jong Il and dramatic interviews of North Korean citizens, most Americans thought their reactions were extreme, part of a bizarre and incomprehensible nation. However, what I discovered was a cultural resemblance to the funeral traditions of South Korea.
Since the Joseon Dynasty was founded in 1392 AD, Korean culture has been heavily influenced by Confucianism. Part of the Confucian tradition is a strong emphasis on respect for elders and the deceased, and Korea has relatively serious and detailed funeral traditions compared to other cultures. For example, where the body is buried is extremely important because it is believed that a good burial ground will bring fortunes to the descendants of the deceased, while a bad burial ground will have malicious consequences.
Traditionally, Koreans are expected to appear emotionally distressed in front of a portrait or the body of the deceased, and Koreans hire professional weepers to wail constantly in order to help the mourners immerse themselves more deeply in grief. At the Kumsusan palace, there was one lady who seemed to be taking this role in front of the body of Kim Jong Il. Occasionally, there were others breaking down and wailing in front of the body, and this reaction resembled some mourners who attended my grandfather’s funeral in 2009. In person, the atmosphere was not as extreme and exaggerated as portrayed in the media. Rather, I saw traditional Korean reactions to the death of someone highly respected. Outside the palace, North Koreans carried on with their lives, and I occasionally saw smiles and playfulness on the streets of Pyongyang.
We were waiting in a line for our turn to express condolences and walk around the body. Kim Jong Un was standing beside the body as the chief mourner, along with other key members of the party. Our delegation was instructed not to initiate a handshake, for the North Korean funeral tradition is not to hold the chief mourner’s hand. However, when he saw my grandmother, Kim Jong Un stepped forward to greet her and held her hands with both of his. He said that he deeply appreciated her coming a long way to pay a visit for his father’s funeral.
Kim Jong Un also held my hand with two hands. Our delegation’s encounter with him was brief, but he was very young in contrast to the key figures of the party standing next to him—only a few years older than I was.
On the way back to Seoul, as soon as our bus crossed the demarcation line, my grandmother’s escorts sighed with relief. However respectful the North Koreans were, it was still a tense trip. Technically, North and South Korea are still at war, and the armistice agreement has not been replaced with a peace treaty.
My grandfather’s passion had always been the peaceful coexistence and reunification of the Korean peninsula. During his presidency from 1998 to 2003, one of his top priorities was restoring our relationship with North Korea and finding ways to cooperate. Even near his death when he could no longer speak, he had his secretary read aloud for him an article about President Bill Clinton’s visit to North Korea to secure the release of two American journalists detained in 2009.
The past 60 years have completely divided the Korean peninsula, and our differences seem too big to overcome. But 60 years is only a small fraction of the 5,000 years that we spent together as one. During our short time in North Korea, I could feel that—when seen in light of history and culture—we have many more similarities than differences. There is a saying in Korea that goes, “sincere hearts always get along,” and I hope our visit can contribute in some small way to peace on the Korean peninsula.
Jongdae Kim 07Ox 11C is a program coordinator for Emory's Office of International Affairs.