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Some grief over death of North Korea leader false, defectors say

'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,' says a defector, referring to the grief at Kim's father's 1994 death.

December 21, 2011|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Pyongyang citizens bow Wednesday in front of a portrait of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the Grand People's Study House in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea. The portrait was placed in the spot where the portrait of his father, Kim Il Sung, usually hangs.
Pyongyang citizens bow Wednesday in front of a portrait of late North Korean… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Beijing — 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."

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