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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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war