North Korea's Tears: A Blend of Cult, Culture and Coercion

The New York Times/December 21, 2011

Seoul -- South Korea — Among countless mourners at a public square in North Korea, the kneeling middle-aged man in an off-white windbreaker stands out. The state broadcaster's camera zooms in as he wails, rocking back and forth with clenched fists, his grief punctuated by the white puffs of his breath visible in the cold of the capital, Pyongyang.

The camera lingers a few seconds too long on this perfect mourner. A couple of rows away, two teenage boys stand motionless, seemingly uncertain about how to behave. They look toward the man — perhaps even at the camera beyond him — then briefly away, before also dropping to their knees to weep.

A day after North Korea announced the death of its longtime ruler, Kim Jong-il, televised video and photographs distributed by the reclusive state on Tuesday showed scenes of mass hysteria and grief among citizens and soldiers across the capital. The images, many of them carefully selected by the state Korean Central News Agency, appeared to be part of an official campaign to build support for Mr. Kim's successor, his third son, Kim Jong-un.

In his first public appearance since his father's death, Kim Jong-un visited the mausoleum in Pyongyang where Kim Jong-il's body lay in state, covered with a red blanket. The coffin was surrounded by white chrysanthemums and Kimjongilia, a flower named after the deceased leader.

Kim Jong-un was accompanied by a group of senior party and military officials, giving the outside world a hint about whom he might be relying on as he seeks to consolidate control over a dynasty that has controlled North Korea since it was founded by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, whose death in 1994 led to even greater outpouring of public mourning.

Contrived as they might look to Western eyes, the wild expressions of grief at funerals — the convulsive sobbing, fist pounding and body-shaking bawling — are an accepted part of Korean Confucian culture, and can be witnessed at the funerals of the famous and the not famous alike in South Korea. But in the North, the culture of mourning has been magnified by a cult of personality in which the country's leader is considered every North Korean's father.

As such, the public expressions of grief are not so much an assessment of Kim Jong-il's stewardship over North Korea — his failings have become increasingly known to North Koreans in recent years, especially to the privileged class of citizens shown in the videos and photographs released in the past two days. Rather, they are in some ways, at least, the expected way to mourn the passing of a father; not hewing to this tradition would invite social or state opprobrium, as the two teenage boys in the videos seemed to grasp instinctively.

Park Jong-chul, an analyst at the government-financed Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said that much of the grief on display in Pyongyang was genuine. Fear and uncertainty about the North's future were also behind the flow of emotions, but some degree of coercion as well.

"Other North Koreans may be doing it as they think they should or because they are being watched," Mr. Park said.

For more than six decades, the Kim family, starting with Kim Il-sung, ruled the country as if it were one extended family. People called the Kims "father" and "parent." Propaganda murals show North Korean soldiers clinging to the Kims as children do to their parents. Newlyweds pay homage at the nearest Kim Il-sung statue. As filial children take religious care of a parent's tomb in traditional Korean culture, citizens sweep around the Kim monuments, some each morning.

"So they do really feel as if the head of the nation has been cut off," said Brian R. Myers, an expert on North Korean ideology at Dongseo University in South Korea. "Naturally, that makes people feel a certain shock or trauma regardless of whether they really felt a strong personal affection for Kim Jong-il."

Mr. Myers said a critical failure in the West's understanding of North Korea was the tendency to underestimate the cult of personality and the importance of state loyalty there. In the North, he said, "nationalism and state loyalty are mutually reinforcing," so that even when people are displeased by their country's direction, they identify strongly with the state.

Still, Kim Jong-il's death has not inspired as much grief as his father's, analysts said. Under Kim Jong-il, North Korea's food shortages worsened. A growing gap in loyalty to the regime developed "between those with vested interests and living in Pyongyang and those living in the outlying provinces," Mr. Park said.

Even North Korean defectors living in South Korea typically recall Kim Il-sung with affection, while saying little about Kim Jong-il, or denigrating him. North Korea's government has been carefully orchestrating the transition to the grandson, a figure with an even thinner record of accomplishments.

When Kim Jong-un made his public debut last year, he was prepared so that he would look just like his grandfather. He was overweight. He wore his hair slicked back. He clapped his hands at party meetings and received kowtowing generals older than his father with a casual gravitas North Koreans identified with his grandfather.

"He was such a spitting image of his grandfather that when he first appeared on TV, many North Koreans broke into tears, hailing him as the second coming of Kim Il-sung," said a South Korean intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.

The campaign continued Tuesday. At the Pyongyang National Theater, actors and actresses were photographed crying, effectively instructing the nation how to behave. The public grief had a goal, as the actors and actresses made clear as they urged the nation to "turn sadness into strength and courage."

Choe Sang-hun reported from Seoul, and Norimitsu Onishi from Tokyo.

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