Accessibility links

North Korean Defectors Puzzled, Moved by Roh Funeral


South Korea's emotional farewell to former President Roh Moo-hyun brought much of the country together - including Koreans who were not born in the South. For North Koreans who have defected to South Korea, the outpouring of public emotion brought back memories of an earlier life - and reminders of how different their new life is.

North Koreans who have begun a new life in the South were alongside their fellow Koreans in Friday's tearful mass gathering in Seoul.

About 15,000 North Koreans now live in the South, having fled political persecution and severe shortages of food and medicine at home.

The traditional Korean chanting, and symbolic white clothing used in a public ceremony Friday to bid farewell to Mr. Roh are well known to Koreans on both sides of the Korean divide. However, other elements of the day's events appeared very strange to North Koreans who watched.

For North Korean defector Kim Young Il, the death of Roh Moo-hyun calls to mind the 1994 funeral of North Korea's first leader, Kim Il Sung - who is worshipped as a god by the North's official political philosophy.

He says the North Korean government forced him to go to Kim's funeral. Schools and factories shut down in order to attend. But, here in South Korea, he says, there is nobody who forces him to come today.

South Korea did not declare a formal day off from work for Mr. Roh's funeral, or the public events that took place afterward. Nonetheless, many South Koreans were either given the time off, or took it on their own - as evidenced by tens of thousands of people of all ages who poured into a downtown thoroughfare.

At public memorials all this week, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans were handed white chrysanthemums to place on altars honoring Mr. Roh. Kim says he was expected to present the North Korean leader with a flower as well.

In South Korea there are lots of flower shops, he says - but in the North there were none. Because people could not go to the funeral without one, he says people stole flowers, or searched the fields for wild ones.

President Roh was an ardent supporter of what he called "economic cooperation" with North Korea. His "engagement policy" transferred billions of dollars in public money to North Korea's government, demanding little or nothing in return.

Kim recalls Mr. Roh's silence on issues of key importance to average North Koreans.

He says he feels sorry Mr. Roh was not more active on the issue of human rights for North Koreans, or of North Korean defectors.

Defector Cho Jae-jin is even more blunt. He says many North Korean defectors hate Roh Moo-hyun. However, he adds that Friday's emotional funeral proceedings have given them a fresh look at Mr. Roh, as a person with negative and positive traits.

Perhaps most perplexing to North Koreans is the overt criticism many South Koreans are leveling at incumbent South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Protesters openly accused Mr. Lee Friday of bearing responsibility for Mr. Roh's death, by virtue of the Lee administration's backing of the prosecutors who investigated the former president. Such accusations would be unthinkable in the totalitarian North.

Defector Kim Ji-hee says the divisiveness in the South's politics gives her pangs of nostalgia.

She says she feels anxious about the South's politics. It even makes her miss North Korea - even though there, she was very hungry and poor.

XS
SM
MD
LG