Some grief over death of North Korea leader false, defectors say
Chu Sung-ha says he knows for sure that some of the people shown sobbing on television over the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il are faking it.
Once, he was one of them. As a 20-year-old student at Pyongyang’s prestigious Kim Il Sung University in 1994, when North Korea’s founder and the school’s namesake died, Chu and his fellow students were used to illustrate the nation’s grief.
Television cameras were rolling when the students were ushered into an auditorium to be told the news. And though most were genuinely overcome, those who weren’t knew enough to sob on cue.
“I just bowed my head so nobody could see I wasn’t crying,” recalled Chu, who now lives in Seoul and works as a journalist. “There were cameras on campus and I knew I would be caught on television.”
If anything, this time around there will be more faking, more crocodile tears and perhaps some well-concealed smiles. Kim Il Sung was by most accounts genuinely beloved; uri abogi, he was called, the same Korean honorific used to indicate “our father” or “our lord.” His son, whose death was announced Monday, was a more problematic figure who presided over years of famine and hardship.
“There aren’t the same tears for Kim Jong Il after all the deaths and all the refugees. The people abandoned him in their hearts long ago,” said Yoo Sang-jun, 48, a defector from North Hamgyong province whose wife and young son were among an estimated 2 million North Koreans to die of hunger.
Now, as in 1994, there is a 10-day mourning period in which a demonstration of grief is a patriotic obligation. In the case of Kim Il Sung’s death, the rituals took place in front of the tens of thousands of statues of him erected around the country. People lined up for hours to kneel and bring flowers.
Kim Jong Il was referred to as the “Dear Leader,” but he declined to have statues set up in his honor, believing his late father made for a better figurehead. Instead, people are mourning in front of large portraits in meeting halls and public squares.
North Korean news reports said Wednesday that 5 million people, about a fifth of the population, had participated in the rituals.
The events have followed the template set at Kim Il Sung’s death. In both cases, the deaths were announced at noon, when most people would be with their work units and under control. The same black-clad weeping anchorwoman who announced Kim Il Sung’s death appeared on television Monday to announce the death of his son.
If the past is any guide, there will be a histrionic quality to the grieving as people compete for who can sob the loudest and who can look the most distraught.
A former North Korean kindergarten teacher from the northeastern city of Chongjin recalled that she had to lead her pupils twice a day to a 25-foot-tall statue of Kim Il Sung.
“I saw some of the kids putting saliva on their face to make it look like they were crying,” said the teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They would take measure of what the other kids were doing to do the same. I was shocked that children so young would behave that way.”
The teacher said she thought that Kim Jong Il’s death would elicit less true emotion.
“People follow Kim Jong Il out of fear and oppression, but Kim Il Sung seemed to work with sincerity for the people,” she said Wednesday.
For North Koreans, the death of Kim Il Sung was stamped as vividly in the psyche as Sept. 11, 2001, for Americans. Although Kim was 82 and in poor health, the propaganda was so overwhelming that he seemed immortal. Even those who were skeptical about the regime found themselves in shock over the death of the only leader the country had ever known.
At one point, mass hysteria overpowered even the doubters.
“If everyone else is crying, you start to cry too. That is the psychology of the crowd,” said Chu, the journalist.
“When a camera points at you, you feel that you are being tested and you have to perform to demonstrate the utmost sadness,” said Kim Heung-gwang, a former computer science professor from North Korea, recalling the aftermath of Kim Il Sung’s death.
The pressure was also rooted in pragmatism. North Koreans are rated through a system called songbun, designed by Kim Il Sung in the 1950s to measure loyalty. At the bottom of the heap is the “hostile class.” In the middle, the “wavering class.” The most loyal North Koreans are part of the “core class,” who are eligible for membership in the ruling Workers’ Party and can be assigned homes and jobs in Pyongyang, the capital.
“There was a rumor during the mourning period for Kim Il Sung that we were being graded in how we showed our grief. If you didn’t go out to mourn with the others, you would be in disfavor and that would count against you in the future,” said Yoo, the defector whose wife and son died. “Especially for the people in Pyongyang, they had to show they were the most faithful.”
Other defectors say that people were punished or received downgrades of their status for wearing makeup or nice clothing, drinking or appearing to be in good spirits during the mourning period.
“You were supposed to look like you were sad,” the kindergarten teacher said.
Demonstrative grieving is not unique to North Korea. Older Chinese remember being under the same kind of pressure to perform in 1976, when China’s founder, Mao Tse-tung, died.
“It is very similar to what happened in China when Mao died,” said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People’s University of China in Beijing. “It is hard to say now whether people are faking the crying or not because many people do have the mentality of being obedient citizens and might really feel that Kim Jong Il is like God. That’s the sign of their inability to distinguish reality.”
In fact, Kim Jong Il, in the 1970s and ‘80s was a key figure in the North Korean propaganda system, overseeing the creation of a mythology surrounding his father and, to a lesser extent, himself.
There is some evidence that Kim was realistic about the true feelings of the North Korean people. The South Korean film director Shin Sang Ok, in a memoir about his eight years in North Korea, recalled an incident in which Kim grew irritated with a singing troupe that was chanting, “Long Live the Dear Leader.”
Kim, Shin recalled, turned to him and explained that the adulation was merely a show.
“Mr. Shin, it is all false,” said Kim. “They are just uttering lies.”
Tommy Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.