Kim Jong-Il's funeral begins. But how genuine is the grief?

A defector on Kim Il-Sung's death: "The histrionics of grief took on a competitive quality. Who coul

Hundreds of thousands of mourners have lined the streets in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, as the two-day funeral proceedings for Kim Jong-il get underway.

Video released by North Korea state television, seen above, shows his son and chosen heir Kim Jong-Un leading the procession. The funeral is remarkably similar to that held for Kim Il-Sung in 1994, when Kim Jong-Il took the role of mourner in chief to secure his succession.

A thickly emotional voiceover sums up the reaction we have seen from North Korea: overt, noisy grief. In other clips, ordinary citizens kneel in the snow, apparently overcome, while members of the crowd are choked with tears when interviewed.

This is also reminiscent of the aftermath of Kim Il-Sung's death, when images of distraught North Koreans spread across the globe. But how genuine is this grief?

In her book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick interviewed defectors from the notoriously cloistered state. One of the young men profiled in the book, at the time a student in Pyongyang, describes the public mourning for Kim Il-Sung:

The histrionics of grief took on a competitive quality. Who could weep the loudest?

Demick explains that he felt nothing, eventually holding his eyes open until they teared up:

His entire future depended on his ability to cry. Not just his career and his membership in the Workers' Party, his very survival was at stake. It was a matter of life and death.

Of course, those who ultimately defect are more likely to oppose the regime and may not reflect the feelings of the general public, but it is worth remembering that the scenes of ostentatious grief may not be all they seem.

Earlier this week, a foreign aid worker gave the first eyewitness account of the mourning for Kim Jong-Il, describing a highly stage-managed process:

When we visited, it was surreal. Ten thousand North Koreans waiting in queues to pay their respects, coming to the front in groups of 100, bowing down and crying. All combined with flood lights, strong icy winds and melancholic music and voices from loudspeakers. Everything, meanwhile, being well documented by about 20 photographers and ten TV camera teams.

Given the tight control of information in North Korea, and the extent to which notions of the state and personal identity are bound up with leader-worship, it is likely that many feel genuine grief and fear about their future security.

However, the well-documented phenomenon of mass hysteria is clearly in action too, as well as the compulsion to grieve. As Theodore Dalrymple puts it: "This is a regime where everything that isn't forbidden is compulsory". The regime is tightly controlling the images being shown to the world, the real picture is far more complex.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear