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Are North Koreans' Tears Genuine?

Mourners react as a car carrying Kim Jong Il's body passes by during the funeral procession in Pyongyang on December 28.
Mourners react as a car carrying Kim Jong Il's body passes by during the funeral procession in Pyongyang on December 28.
To outsiders, many of the images coming out of North Korea seem choreographed. But has the intensity of the mourning on display since leader Kim Jong Il's death taken such matters to a whole new level?

Soldiers and average citizens alike were shown on state television weeping uncontrollably; crowds lining an official funeral procession on December 28 swelled and tested the limits of officers trying to keep them at bay; elderly women were seen falling to the ground in grief.

Even the rain and mist that hovered over the snow-covered capital was attributed to tears falling from the heavens.

Can it be that citizens of this extremely isolated country are genuinely so upset at the loss of their "Dear Leader"? Is the outside world witnessing a cultural phenomenon it was unaware of?

Or are there other emotions at play, perhaps fear of the unknown? Have they been instructed to act in such a way, maybe for domestic and international political purposes?

Jang Ji-hyang, a regional specialist in South Korea, says that the display is best understood by looking at the circumstances under which the North's 24 million people live -- their politics and their world view.

Jang, a research fellow at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul, says public expression of emotion is central to Korean culture. She says that expressing one's grief publicly at funerals is considered polite and demonstrates one's attachment to a family or community.

Thus the grief can be considered genuine, she says.

A 'Bunkered State'

But in neighboring South Korea, the media has portrayed the display of public mourning as "hysterical and insane," so it can't entirely be written off as Korean culture.

"It's not only about the culture, it is also about the deeply controlled and closed, bunkered state, and politics," Jang notes.

Over the course of a century the country went from dynastic rule, to occupation, to communism, while society remained stuck in time.

Jang notes North Korea's lack of exposure to modern, open societies. "The old people feel that their kings have died and, as their servants, they feel so sad [as if they were] a premodern society. I [also] think they were scared into showing their deep grief and their sadness in public," she says.

"They are living in a very scary and closed system. And some of them are really willing to show their loyalty and their sadness very openly, on purpose."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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