REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– They are a group with much to lose in the aftermath of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il: defectors who have fled the secretive regime and have little access to information about family members back home.
On Monday, several former North Koreans now living in Seoul talked about their feelings concerning the death of a man many called a dreaded tyrant.
"I didn't get chance to call my hometown yet because it costs a lot of money. I am not so worried about my relatives. If they were elites, I would be extra-concerned, but my folks are common people," said Kang Cheol-ryong, a 28-year-old defector who's now attending a university in Seoul. "But I know that dangers lurk. Until the mourning period ends, they should not drink, sing, have fun, play or laugh. So they should be careful."
Kang, who is president of his college's Students for Peace and Unification Assn., said he fears for his countrymen as Kim Jong Il's youngest son, Kim Jong Un, is set to assume control of the Pyongyang regime.
"I am worried that for now citizens will be in turmoil. Kim Jong Un doesn't have a firm political ground in the elite circle. So I am worried about the Chinese reaction, and also the power struggle within the party in North Korea. It also concerns me that the South Korean government does not seem to be ready for the power shift in Pyongyang and their reactions are shaky."
South Korean officials were under fire Monday for their apparent failure to assemble credible intelligence on Kim Jong Il's death, which reportedly came Saturday morning as the strongman rode aboard a train in the north. South Korean intelligence apparently had no information about the death until North Korea made an announcement.
Other defectors said that Kim's death brings a chance for change.
"I've been mocking Kim Jong Il and have been making satire pieces to help people open up their eyes," said Song Byeok, a 42-year-old defector artist whose paintings include an image of Kim Jong Il's head atop the body of actress Marilyn Monroe.
" ... I certainly hope to reach out to the North Korean citizens, especially now that the evil has passed away. It really shows that a mighty dictator, who appeared as if he would live forever, can't avoid death, just like other powerful dictators like Stalin and Mao," he said.
Song said he felt sorry for North Koreans.
"The citizens in Pyongyang will have to pretend to be mournful," he said. "But I won't stop depicting Kim Jong Il, because now he has become a symbol of the fallen dictator."
Kim Ik-hwan, secretary-general of Open Radio for North Korea, said that members of the service, which reports from Seoul on the reclusive communist regime, had been "checking with our sources at the Chinese-NK border region. We checked with them ... [when] the announcement was made. They weren't aware of Kim's death until then. And then after the announcement was made, ... we spoke with them on the phone.
"Rather than being mournful and sorry," he said, "they were frustrated and annoyed that the announcement came out late, two days after the leader's death."
He said that "because our sources are merchants who do import/export and smuggle goods at the border, they were afraid that this will have a direct influence on their economic conditions. They were afraid that customs will be closing due to the mourning period.
"Overall, our sources were more worried about the economic effects."
He said that with Kim Jong Un stepping into a leadership role, "North Koreans seem to relatively have a renewed expectation. This does not mean that they are supportive of Kim Jong Un, but at least they are hoping that with the new leader there finally will be some changes."
Sohn Jung-hoon, director of North Korean Defectors' Vision Network, heaped spite on the late dictator and his regime. "Kim Jong Il was a terrible leader," he said. "The North Koreans suffered too much with famine and economic hardships."
He said he had unsuccessfully tried to contact North Koreans on Monday following the news of the strongman's death. "I am hopeful that there's change in the air. Right now, I am trying to connect with my contacts in the border region," he said.
"But it seems like it's going to be really tough. Even though calling them was illegal, ... we had managed to contact them [in the past]. But now, all the lines have been shut off."
-- Jung-yoon Choi and John M. Glionna