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On North Korea's border: foreboding about what's next

South Koreans wonder if North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, might cause more trouble abroad to divert attention from political instability at home.

South Korean soldiers stand guard on the southern part of the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul, Thursday. North Korea's shift in leadership to Kim Jong-un after the death of Kim Jong-il leaves many uncertainties.

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters

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At this major gateway between South and North Korea, tomorrow's funeral in Pyongyang for North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il evokes memories of when North Korean troops poured south in the first days of the Korean War.

Against a distant backdrop of ridges stripped bare by desperate North Koreans looking for firewood, people wonder if North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-il’s third son and heir, Kim Jong-un, thrust into power while in his late 20’s, might foment more trouble to divert attention from political instability at home.

“Kim Jong-il’s death is one thing, but what worries me is the condition of North Korea now that he’s gone,” says a clerk in the spacious “immigration office” near the last station on the unused line going North. “It’s going to be dangerous up there. No one knows what will happen.”

A grizzled guard who fled south with his parents as a boy in the days after the invasion echoes that fear. “They would blame everything on the South,” he says, looking over the vast train station, an edifice in glass, steel, marble, and granite. Several times a day, near-empty trains bring curiosity-seekers and workers on the way to the Kaesong economic zone, a complex of more than 100 small factories staffed by about 50,000 North Koreans several miles above the demilitarized zone that has separated the two Koreans ever since the Korean War. ”They could do anything.”


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