Leaders of Seattle's Korean-American community reacted with a mix of fear and hope Sunday to the death of North Korea's much-despised leader...

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Leaders of Seattle’s Korean-American community reacted with a mix of fear and hope Sunday to the death of North Korea’s much-despised leader.

John Oh, president of the Seattle chapter of the National Unification Advisory Council, which wants to see the Korean peninsula peacefully reunited, couldn’t contain his relief — or his anxiety.

“This is great news to me,” said Oh, who was driven out of North Korea during the war in the 1950s. “I’m so glad to hear this dictator is dead. But now I’m worried about military action.”

Oh, like others, feared that succession will be turbulent, and that Kim Jong Il’s son is too young and inexperienced to keep the country’s powerful military leaders in check.

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State Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, whose family was from the north and who still has cousins living there, said she thinks Kim’s death boosts the long-term odds that reunification may occur in her lifetime. But she, too, worries about the short run — how destabilizing the leader’s death will be, and what the fallout will mean for the famine-plagued residents of her parents’ former homeland.

Her mother was able to visit family in North Korea in the 1990s and found, even before the latest food crisis, that access to basic items like socks or a bike was a luxury.

“I’m hopeful that this is an opportunity for America to become more engaged, to at least get more food and basics to the people,” she said. “We’ve heard all the horrible war stories. But the détente we’ve had the last 58 years hasn’t been good for people there.”

Kenny Lee, outgoing president of the Korean Association-Seattle, said that with many lives lost in the past half-century, maybe there’s hope for positive change.

“I was shocked to hear about his death,” Lee said. “But right now, anything can happen.”

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch.

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