- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
The outpouring of grief in North Korea over the death of Kim Jong Il — captured in an FP slideshow today — has many people asking the same question: Are the copious tears shed for the authoritarian ruler real, staged, or — more unsettling yet — a product of brainwashing?
We can’t know for sure, of course. But there’s plenty of speculation. Reuters notes that while grieving has been coordinated in North Korea, there have also been reports of spontaneous outbursts of sorrow at gymnastics competitions and village loudspeakers. The Washington Post‘s Philip Kennicott thinks many of the tears, like those following the death of Josef Stalin in Russia, are genuine — the products of concern about stability and continuity, "mass hysteria," and the inability to "conceive of life without the Dear Leader."
Others are more skeptical, however. In an appearance on PRI’s The World last night, British professor Hazel Smith, who lived in North Korea for two years, suggested that those doing the crying represent the minority who’ve benefitted under Kim Jong Il’s rule, pointing to footage broadcast by North Korean state media of wailing students from Pyongyang’s No. 1 Secondary School as evidence:
Pyongyang No. 1 Secondary School is where the elites go to school and where they would have been filmed by the North Korean TV to show all this grief in order to put on a show for the world. So the main question is what about the rest of the people? Most people think that Kim Jong Il doesn’t provide them with a decent life, enough food to eat, that they’ve suffered a calamitous degradation of their lives economically over the past 20 years.
So what has mourning in the impoverished country looked like? The first instance of public grief came on Monday morning in North Korea, when a television presenter dressed in black haltingly announced Kim Jong Il’s death:
Over the past two days, the state-run Korean Central News Agency has released a series of videos showing the North Korean people — mainly those in the capital — "overcome with grief." In the clip below, employees of the Kwangbok Area Supermarket in Pyongyang — which Kim visited during a "field guidance" tour only days before his death — rush to a stage where the North Korean leader’s picture is displayed, fall to the floor, and weep hysterically. One worker says she welled up with tears when she caught a glimpse of Kim’s "haggard face" during his visit to the supermarket, according to a KCNA translation.
In another video released today, North Koreans young and old weep before a photo of Kim Jong Il at the April 25 House of Culture in the capital. "I can hardly believe his demise," one young woman shrieks. Another woman, the curator of the Jonsung Revolutionary Museum, adds that Kim "did not even allow the people to erect his statue and monument." She pledges fealty to Kim’s revolutionary cause and to the leadership of his son and successor, Kim Jong Un.
KCNA is publishing article after article about the country’s "veritable sea of mourners" (5 million strong in Pyongyang alone, per the news agency) whose "wailing voices are rocking heaven and earth." This Russia Today montage captures some of the other scenes that have been playing on North Korean television, including that shot referenced above of students from No. 1 Secondary School (at 1:00):
In another instance of grieving today, Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance since his father’s death, visiting Kim Jong Il’s coffin and saluting military officials in what smacked of a symbolic transfer of power:
What’s perhaps most striking about all the images above — the hysterical, collective weeping, the ascendant son visiting his father as he lies in state — is how closely they mirror the scenes that came out of North Korea in 1994, when Kim Il Sung died and Kim Jong Il assumed power. Check out this footage from that period:
"He is the eternally immovable mental mainstay of the Korean people," KCNA declares today of Kim Jong Un. One can’t help but feel like history is repeating itself.
Update: In an analysis on Wednesday, the New York Times notes that the convulsive grieving in North Korea is "an accepted part of Korean Confucian culture," a practice compounded by coercion and Kim Jong Il’s cult of personality. "Not hewing to this tradition would invite social and state opprobium," the paper writes. Indeed, according to ABC News, a North Korean defector once wrote that in the wake of Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, "The party conducted surveys to see who displayed the most grief, and made this an important criterion in assessing party members’ loyalty."