Mourners at the funeral procession for Kim Jong Il
It began with a tearful newscaster announcing the death of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Il, on December 17, 2011. Within hours, there were scenes of North Koreans by the thousands lamenting the loss of “Dear Leader.” Schoolchildren stood still in rows, sobbing. Men and women threw themselves to the ground, pounding it with their fists. Even army officers wept openly. What caused such a widespread and extravagant outpouring of grief? To many observers, especially those in the West, it looked like a case of mass hysteria.
Mass hysteria feeds on fear and anxiety. Since the Communist takeover in the late 1940s, North Korea has been isolated from and at odds with most of the rest of the world. North Koreans are taught from an early age that the outside world is a threat and that only their leaders can guarantee the country’s security. For North Koreans, the supreme leader is almost godlike, someone who must be loved and revered without question. The death of Kim Jong Il, then, would have been cause for great fear and anxiety among North Koreans about their personal safety and their country’s future.
Many outsiders think there was more to mourning than such worries. Coercion likely played a role. In North Korea, perhaps the most tightly controlled society in the world, expected behavior for practically every situation is clearly delineated. As one observer noted, “Everything that is not forbidden is compulsory.” North Koreans would have known that the accepted way to mourn Kim Jong Il was an open display of grief. They also would have known that failure to grieve in the approved manner would almost certainly result in some kind of punishment.
In addition, the North Korean government keeps a tight rein on the flow of information. It controls what North Koreans see of the outside world, and what the outside world sees of North Korea. Images of people devastated by the loss of the “father of the nation” were the official government story. How North Koreans truly felt about Kim’s death remains a mystery.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Kyodo News
Mass Hysteria Can Strike Anywhere, Anytime
Psychiatrist Gary Small discusses the phenomenon of mass hysteria.
(Source: Psychology Today, September 28, 2010)
How Genuine Are the Tears in North Korea?
Includes links to background articles on Kim Jong Il and the cult of personality, along with a photo gallery of the memorial services.
(Source: BBC News, December 20, 2011)
North Korea’s Tears: A Blend of Cult, Culture, and Coercion
Discusses the meaning of North Koreans’ response to the death of Kim Jong Il
(Source: New York Times, December 20, 2011)
North Koreans Greif-Stricken Over Kim’s Death
Read about the impact of the death of Kim Jong Il; includes links to videos on related topics.
(Source: CNN.com, December 19, 2011)
Mass Mourning for Kim Jong-il Reflects Misplaced Emotions
Ian Buruma, a specialist in Asian cultures, offers an explanation for the North Koreans’ mourning for Kim Jong Il.
(Source: Taipei Times, January 8, 2012)
North Koreans’ Reaction to Kim Jong-il’s Death Is Impossible to Gauge
A look at the coverage of Kim Jong Il’s death by the state-run North Korean media.
(Source: The Guardian, December 19, 2011)