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28 December 2011

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

By Samira Shackle

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.

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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.