South Korea has always been of two minds about its northern neighbor. Many here see North Koreans as misguided cousins who will one day be brought back into the fold of a united Korea. Many say they would side with Pyongyang in a war with the U.S., a longtime Seoul ally.
Others have dismissed North Koreans as uneducated masses in the trance of an unhinged leader who long threatened to bring the entire peninsula to ruin. For them, the news Monday of Kim's death signaled one step toward economic Armageddon –- the failure of the regime sending 24 million poor and hungry North Koreans across a suddenly-defunct DMZ, creating havoc in the South Korean economy.
Both voices were heard Monday.
At Seoul Station, the nation's largest transportation hub where travelers routinely gape at super-sized television screens, many commuters watched the noon-hour announcement of Kim's death with open mouths, many asking people near them if the news could be true. Others stared dumbfounded at smartphone screens.
While some passersby expressed hope that the North Koreans would soon end decades of starvation, others worried about the effects Kim's death would have on the stock market and national security.
"I am bewildered. I still can't believe it," Eom Yun-mo, 38, told Yonhap news service as he waited for a train at Seoul Station. "Speculation over his death has circulated frequently, but this seems to be the first time his death has been confirmed."
Not far from the train station, a South Korean nationalistic group held a rally to celebrate the death of the dictator who preferred to be called "Dear Leader."
"We South Korean citizens all over the world welcome the death of Kim Jong Il," read one of the group's banners.
In the world’s most wired nation, Internet users vented their anxiety over the day's developments. Many said they barely knew Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong Un, who, though only in his 20s, has been nominated to replace his father.
"We are not at all ready for the breakdown of North Korea," one blogger posted. "I am overwhelmed and scared because we don't know what's to happen with the new, unknown young leader now."
Others expressed frustration and doubts that the South Korean government was up to date on the situation in the north.
"It's maddening that the government had absolutely no idea that Kim had passed away," one blogger posted. "They do not know what is going on up in North. How can we trust such a government?"
Later in the day, President Lee Myung-bak called on South Koreans to remain calm and focus on their usual business.
"The government will keep thorough preparedness while keeping a close watch over the situation in North Korea," read a statement from Lee's office. "The government will also cooperate closely with the international community to maintain peace and safety on the Korean Peninsula."
A Seoul advocacy group called for residents here to continue efforts to repatriate South Koreans kidnapped by the north over past decades. "I am concerned that the death of Kim Jong Il could trigger a power struggle in the north and disturb the country," Choi Seong-yong, chairman of the Abductees' Family Union, told Yonhap.
-- John M. Glionn and Jung-yoon Choi
Photo: South Koreans rally in Seoul to celebrate the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Credit: Chung Sung Jun / Getty Images