North Korean defector Son Jeong Hun, who lives in Seoul, says he experienced… (Matt Douma, For The Times )
Reporting from Seoul — The sudden death of Kim Jong Il is forcing North Korea's prosperous southern neighbor to confront a class divide deep in its midst.
People like Son Jeong Hun, a defector from the north struggling to fit in amid modern, bustling Seoul, hope the dictator's demise signals a light at the end of the tunnel for their backward homeland.
Others such as South Korean-born Kim Chi-guk, who sells imported chocolate at an exclusive department store, are afraid a train is barreling straight for them — maybe bristling with weapons, maybe jammed with millions of unwashed cousins who will cost them a lot of money.
PHOTOS: Kim Jong Il | 1942-2011
The body of Kim Jong Il, who took over from his father and ruled North Korea for 17 years, lay in state Tuesday in Pyongyang, the capital. Kim Jong Un, designated last year to lead the family dynasty in its third generation, made his first public appearance since his father's death. Flanked by senior leaders of the military, the ruling party and the government, he bowed before the glass encasement over his father's body.
Although outside analysts question whether the young man is ready to succeed his father, North Korean media attempted to make his elevation seem inevitable. The official news agency quoted many North Koreans swearing loyalty to a man still in his 20s who was hardly known to them just a year ago.
The transition is likely to play out gradually, answering whether Kim Jong Un is strong enough to take control of North Korea and what that will mean. Will he make a point of belligerence to establish that he must be taken seriously? Will he move to reform North Korea and end its isolation?
In Seoul, just an hour's drive from the demilitarized zone, those are very concrete questions. No one wants a war with North Korea, or to see its people continue to die of hunger. Still, well-established and prosperous South Koreans are unlikely to wish for dramatic change.
Before he fled a decade ago, Son, 47, was among North Korea's elite. College-educated, he worked to attract foreign investment to North Korea. On the side, he conducted tours for foreign visitors and ran his own import-export business.
News of Kim Jong Il's death over the weekend created the most confusing day of his life, Son said, inciting a battle of a "thousand different emotions all mixed inside of me."
Thankful that a tyrant was gone, he nonetheless worried about who would replace him and what it would mean to those still in North Korea. "I see a glimmer of hope that for so many people, there might now be a way out," Son said.
But the 20,000 northern defectors in South Korea and those who share their concerns — particularly Christians eager to convert the North Koreans — are a distinct minority.
Many others in South Korea instead fret over their personal security and pocketbooks. For years, North Korea has kept an arsenal of weapons aimed at their homes, schools and businesses.
And what ruin will befall South Korea's bustling economy, they ask, if the Korean peninsula is reunited and millions of impoverished North Koreans come streaming across the demilitarized zone?
As he tended to his chocolate display Tuesday, Kim Chi-guk spoke for many here. "If north and south are reunited," he said, "my taxes are going to be raised."
Nearby, clutching her designer bag, Park Jung-hee said the change in North Korea was all over the media, "but it doesn't affect the people around me."
In many ways, north and south have become two separate nations since the bloody 1950s conflict that divided them. South Korea has become one of the world's most wired societies. The world's 10th-largest economy, it is a major manufacturer of cars and computer technology. Northerners' average income is less than 1% of their southern neighbors'.
According to an estimate made this year by South Korea's Unification Ministry, stitching the two countries together would cost between $1 trillion and $2.5 trillion.
"South Koreans want unification. It's just a question of whether they're willing to pay the cost, which would wreak havoc on the south's economy," said Jasper Kim, a visiting scholar at Harvard University and author of a book examining how the 1997 Asian financial crisis reshaped South Korea's economic and political thinking.
Kim predicted that South Korea would probably issue vouchers to northerners to use at home in case of reunification in order to keep them there.
Son fears that North Koreans suddenly arriving in the south would be treated much the same as he has been. His status and education in the north mean little here. The only job he could land was as a hotel bellhop.