North Korean defectors hope life will be better without 'Dear Leader'
SEOUL // Desperate to escape, Ji Seong-ho, a malnourished double amputee with only one arm and one leg, was hauled across the Tumen River five years ago by his brother to flee their totalitarian homeland, North Korea, into China.
Twenty-nine-year-old Mr Ji, now a law student and a campaigner who works for democracy in North Korea from his new home in Seoul, is glad North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is dead.
"When I first heard about Kim Jong-il's death I felt exultation, but there were many thoughts," he said over a coffee at Starbucks, a chain not allowed in Pyongyang.
"I thought about my father's death. I regret that [Kim Jong-il] died too happily, too easily. But I thought, now North Korea's 23 million people can live a better life'."
Like many of the 22,000 North Korean defectors living in the prosperity of South Korea, Mr Ji hopes the regime change - even if it is only to Kim's son, Kim Jong-un - will bring a better life for his compatriots.
North Korean state media yesterday hailed Kim Jong-un the "supreme commander".
"I'm living a better life in South Korea now, but I'm sorry for the other North Koreans still suffering under the dictatorship," he says.
"It's the difference between heaven and hell. In North Korea you live the life of a machine."
Mr Ji and his brother escaped in 2006.
His father was not so lucky.
He tried the same river crossing. He was caught and tortured to death by North Korean forces.
North and South Korea are still officially at war, more than 50 years after truce was declared on the peninsula. The border between them is one of the most heavily fortified zones in the world.
Mr Ji's own story is interwoven with North Korea's often disastrous recent history.
He lost his arm and leg in 1996 when, malnourished as a result of food shortages that killed his grandmother, he fell from a coal train he had sneaked into in the hope of stealing fuel to heat his impoverished family's home.
As he lay injured, he was hit by another carriage. He now has two artificial limbs.
His mother and sister defected first, arriving in China in 2004.
Two years later, Mr Ji and his younger brother followed.
Their swim across the Tumen is a typical tale of desperation.
"I couldn't swim well, but my brother helped me, almost carrying me to the Chinese side," he said.
By the end of 2006, Mr Ji had reached South Korea, where speaking a different dialect and having no friends made it hard to adapt.
Now he is well integrated, unlike many other defectors, and his surviving relatives have joined him.
Government assistance, including free education up to degree level for North Koreans, has enabled him to enrol as a law student.
He founded a campaign group, Now Action & Unity for NK Human Rights, which raises awareness of North Korean human-rights abuses and has paid for defectors to move from China to South Korea. They hold street campaigns during weekends in Seoul, unfurling banners and giving out leaflets, and organise lectures.
Every day Mr Ji is grateful for his new life.
"I thought to myself that Kim Jong-il's sons would inherit his power and country, just because of who their father was, but I would live a handicapped life in North Korea begging food because I was born to a normal person," he said
"I thought it was unfair and there was no future for me in North Korea."
There has been intense speculation about Kim Jong-un's hold on power and whether he will introduce reforms.
His father leaves a complicated circle of rival relatives and generals.
Despite having little faith in North Korea's new leader, Mr Ji believes the future will be better because North Koreans "weren't brainwashed to worship Kim Jong-un".
"I expect the third generation of the dictatorship will not last long because of that fact," he said.
North Korea is the world's only communist dynasty. The country was founded by Kim Jong-il's father - Kim Il-sung, or "Great Leader" - just after the Second World War.
Other defectors agree Kim Jong-un lacks stature.
One North Korean female defector, who works for a media organisation but asked not to be named, said when she contacted an associate in North Korea after Kim Jong-il's death, she was told: "There's no hope anymore in North Korea."
"That's a sign of not trusting, not respecting Kim Jong-un as the new leader.
"When Kim Il-sung was ruling the country, they showed real respect, but these days they're pretending they have respect, but inside they don't feel anything.
"I think North Koreans are not welcoming Kim Jong-un."
Some analysts say Kim Jong-il's eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, may try to seize power and Mr Ji believes he could achieve popular support if he introduced reforms.
Whatever happens, Mr Ji sees turbulence ahead.
"Sources in North Korea say ... many people are getting ready to defect again. There will be confusion in 2012," he said.
"The year will be a year of conflict."
Whatever upheavals follow, Mr Ji believes the peninsula will ultimately be unified, meaning he could visit his home city of Hoeryong in North Korea's northernmost province.
Will this really happen in his lifetime?
Updated: December 25, 2011 04:00 AM