News / Asia

South Korea Will Allow Citizens to Send Condolences to North

The body of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il lies in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, December 20, 2011.
The body of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il lies in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, December 20, 2011.
Jason Strother

The South Korean government has not offered North Korea official condolences about the death of ruler Kim Jong Il, but it is allowing private citizens and organizations to express their sympathy by granting rare cross-border contact.  The decision does not sit well with some activist groups who say no one should feel sorry about the loss of a dictator.  

South Koreans are not normally permitted to send messages across the border.  There has not been mail or telephone service between the two nations for six decades.  But following the death of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il, Seoul's Unification Ministry is bending the rules.

During a briefing Thursday, Park Soo-jin, vice spokeswoman for the government body that handles relations with the North said the Unification Ministry will accept requests from individuals or groups who want to express condolences to North Korea.  After the ministry contacts Pyongyang, the messages can be sent to the North by either letter or fax.

Some progressive civic groups, pro-engagement political parties and companies who do business with North Korea are expected to send their sympathies over Kim's death.  The Unification Ministry says Hyundai-Asan, the South Korean firm that jointly ran a tourist venture with the North until recently, was one of the first to apply.

While Seoul will not send an official delegation to attend Kim Jong Il's funeral on December 28, the wife of late President Kim Dae-jung, Lee Hee-ho, and the chairwoman of the Hyundai Group, Hyun Jung-eun, will be allowed to travel if okayed by Pyongyang.

The fact that South Korea is doing anything to commemorate the life of Kim Jong Il does not go over very well with activist Park Sang-hak.  He is a North Korean defector who, along with other demonstrators, recently launched balloons carrying anti-Kim Jong Il propaganda leaflets over the demilitarized zone.

"What kind of person was Kim Jong Il?" he asked. "No one sent condolences to Libya after Muammar Gaddafi died.  Kim Jong Il was worse than him, Gaddafi did not have prison camps, he did not starve his people like Kim did.  It does not make sense to send a delegation to attend his funeral."

But other observers say that considering the poor state of Korean relations, the Lee Myung-bak administration is missing out on a chance to improve ties by not officially expressing sympathy.

"It is a very passive gesture of condolence, rather than sending a direct message from the government they just said we will not ban such and such a person from going.  From my vantage point, they could have done more," said John Delury, who lectures in East Asian Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Delury says the government in Seoul continues to send mixed signals to Pyongyang.  While allowing activist groups to send propaganda balloons across the border, it has asked churches not to illuminate Christmas lights along the demilitarized zone out of respect for the North.

The evangelical Christian group that was to turn on the holiday lights on December 23, says it will postpone the ceremony.

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