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Dublin: 13°C Tuesday 17 May 2022

Column: ‘When Kim Il-sung died, we celebrated – there was new hope’

Working as a teacher in South Korea, Hayley Millar expected wild parties when much-hated Kim Jong-il died. So why was nobody celebrating? She asked around…

Hayley Millar

I WOULD HAVE expected there to be more of a reaction, really.

The death of the hated leader of North Korea is announced, and there I am sitting at a table eating kimchi and rice with my South Korean colleagues… I felt strangely privileged. I had the opportunity to witness first-hand an emotional and historic moment of the kind you normally only read about in history textbooks or in the newspaper.

Dee first read out the news from her phone, in Korean, but I caught the relevant words and the shocked tone. “Kim jong-il is dead?” I asked in English, as no one else responded to her statement. She nodded, a hint of surprise on her face, but otherwise indifferent. “He was on a train. He was ill. He died,” was all she said when I asked her for details. Jennifer made a comment in Korean, something along the lines of “good riddance” as far as I could tell, and someone else nodded. That was it. So much for my visions of being swept up in a joyous, cheering crowd of South Koreans dancing in the streets with fresh hope for reunification.

“Where’s the champagne?” asked Chris, but there were only a few half-hearted smiles in response. Dee saw our surprise at the lack of emotion, and tried to explain. “When Kim Il-sung died, we celebrated,” she told us. “We cheered. People danced with joy. I will never forget that day… I was in elementary school, and I was certain that something big was going to happen. It was very emotional – people thought that because he was gone, we would be reunited as one Korea. Many of my family thought they would finally see their relatives and friends again. There was a lot of new hope. Everyone was excited. But then…”

She shrugged, looking sad, as if re-living the emotions from almost two decades ago. “…Everything just went on as before. Kim Jong-il took over. Nothing changed at all. There was a lot of disappointment. No one will want to raise their hopes again this time, you see? Now I hear this news and I just think… what difference does it make? Nothing will change.”

‘The chance that they’ll see their families again seems non-existent’

In a way, the lack of excitement pleases me. I really strongly dislike celebrations of death, even though it seems to be acceptable to rejoice in someone’s passing if the majority of people have deemed him/her deserving of death. The braying crowds celebrating the killing of bin Laden earlier this year truly sickened me. They were like lynch mobs, or witch-hunters carrying their flaming torches and howling for blood. A human being – however disgusting, evil, and contemptible he was – had died, and celebrating the loss of any human life is (in my opinion) a bit twisted.

I understand the reasons, and the emotions, but it doesn’t sit right with me, all the same. I felt as if I’d gone back to a less ‘civilised’ time, where humans were nothing but bloodthirsty animals waving around crudely-fashioned spears and communicating in grunts and howls. I was shocked and a little frightened by the comments I read and the rejoicing I saw.

So I suppose I find it admirable that the South Koreans are not taking to the streets to rejoice in the death of arguably the most insanely dangerous man on the planet. However, I also find their total lack of emotion very sad. They’ve given up hope of reunification, from what I can see. Most of them believe there’s more likely to be another devastating war than a United Korea. As those separated from their families grow older, the chance that they’ll ever see them again seems practically non-existent. There’s none of the hope that there was when Kim Il-sung died: Kim Jong-il didn’t turn out to be any better, and Kim Jong-un will be the same, if not worse.

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Loss of hope is probably one of the saddest conditions there is. I hope the crazy gene skipped the young man stepping up to lead that troubled country. I hope he wants to work towards building links with South Korea and the rest of the world. I hope something will change for the better now that his father is gone.

It’s not a very strong hope, and it’s not a very likely hope, but it’s hope, nevertheless.

Hayley Millar makes a living as an English teacher in South Korea, and spends the rest of her time writing about the ups and downs (and regular confusion) of living abroad. She blogs at Coffee Helps.

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Hayley Millar

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