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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.