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December 20, 2011

How To Understand All Those Photos of North Koreans Crying Over Kim Jong Il

I’m having trouble relating to writers having trouble relating to the grief over Kim Jong Il. Some are suggesting that North Korean citizens are simply faking the emotion because they know they are being photographed. Others cite theories about crowd behavior, in which one person’s crying can supposedly set off a hysterical and intensifying tide of similar behavior. Just because. More likely though, the reactions to these photos are mirrors into our own cultural psyche. It seems many — ingrained in the core, and unshakeable values of autonomy, free will, “don’t tread on me,”… and having been fed a steady stream of images of Kim as buffoon — look at these photos of crying Koreans not just with disbelief, but with distain.

More specifically, I think it’s almost impossible for Americans to look at these images without believing that a citizen’s sense of free will and individuality is somehow just hovering below the surface. North Korea’s suffocating, manically-enforced and long-standing repression and cultural indoctrination, combined with the effectively religious, wall-to-wall and 24/7 pounding beat of the image and glory of Kim Il Sung, and then Kim Jong Il, cannot be underestimated. The restriction of the North Korean self has likely been so fundamental from birth as to leave most citizens either psychically set in the fold, or at least anxiety-ridden to dare entertain a political thought inside his or her own head.

(For a sense of this personality expressed through photographs, look at this review of Hiroshi Watanabe’s photos from North Korea, along with this group of photos from his website. It’s not that you don’t see individuality or even resistance in faces, but it’s just such a narrow range.)

And so, just like  the reaction of a child who loses a parent who has been taking care of her while also abusing her, the reaction is complex. Rather than looking at these photos one-dimensionally — just reading “sadness,” for example — I think what we’re seeing is grief constituted by fear, confusion and a more existential sense of loss.

And yes, I think there is sadness, too, but based on the reverence for an idol that is so primitive and ingrained that there would be much psychological work to do to even begin to distinguish love from hate, or allegiance from intimidation.

(photo: Reuters/Kyodo caption: Pyongyang residents react as they mourn over the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, in this photo taken by Kyodo on December 19, 2011. (photo 2: Reuters/KCNA via Reuters TV caption: A girl cries as she mourns the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in this December 19, 2011 still image taken from video.)

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  • Ricky Criddler

    What you just said… made absolutely no sense. At no point in time in your incoherent babling did you come up with anything that could be considered close to a rational thought…i award you no points…and may god have mercy on your soul.

    they are crying because north korea wants the world to believe the propaganda that kim jong il was loved by his people. So much so that his death is apparently something that even adults cant comprehend…Death is a part of reality and they look absurd behaving as if it is something done wrong to them. Most peopel wouldnt react that way to the death of a close family member, falling and banging fists in the streets like that.

    • sml

      lol’ed at the above comment. some people…

      To presume that we have any idea regarding what North Koreans are feeling is a very Western thing to do, I think. We hold our own values to be universal, and we assume that every human being on the planet operates and reacts in similar, “logical” ways. 

      Clearly, in North Korea, there’s some kind of enigmatic force at work that is alien to our Western notions of grief and how grief should “appropriately” be displayed. As to what that force may be, I have no idea and I don’t pretend to, but it’s important to keep in mind the extent to which these people have been isolated from the rest of the world. From birth they have been force-fed the idea that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (father and son) are the biggest and most righteous world leaders on the planet. This is why I don’t like your analogy to a child losing an abusive parent. That implies that the child knew that their parent was abusive. That may or may not be the case. 

      All that aside, its fascinating to see a resurgence of multimedia about North Korea. I’ve seen  travel videos into North Korea (VICE travel guide), photos, videos of peoples’ reaction to the death of Kim Il Sung, etc. etc. Even after being exposed to all these different types of coverage, I still have no idea what the hell is going on over there.

    • Lung Liu

      It’s a cultural thing. I’ve observed a lot of asian funerals here and yes, they do cry like that and they do sometimes bang their fists on the street.

      Indoctrination begins in early childhood. Visited my niece at school in Vietnam (arguably less intense than North Korea) and there is an entire class devoted to “music” that they would sing to the glory of Ho Chi Minh and one can imagine that after an entire lifetime of just that then people just don’t have a choice but to be utterly devoted.

      Whether or not the hardships are the result of Kim Jong Il’s machinations is irrelevant. The blame can easily be diverted to others. It happens there and it happens in the US and I suppose everywhere – and is only obvious to those living outside the milieu. 

    • TaraBella

      That kid is on the escalator again………children need to learn to fear and respect the escalator……

  • bks

    When people clap their hands to save Tinker Bell, a lot of them really want Tinker Bell to live.

        –bks

  • http://profiles.google.com/ac.missias AC Missias

    Yes, this.  Your last sentence captures the whole very well.  People don’t have to be simple in any way to be unable to resist a lifelong totalitarian conditioning — they probably genuinely identify the Dear Leader with the welfare of the state and with the upholding of the ideals that they have had drilled into them.  We have nothing in our experience to compare — I’d say that 1950s patriotism and the pan-ideological mourning for JFK would be a faint shadow of this national reaction.

  • http://profiles.google.com/fatunga robert e

    Oh, yes, those strange North Koreans. We thought that, unlike us in “The Land of The Free” they were forced into mass knee jerk flag-waving and had to pretend that they are in a perpetual state of war, no matter how irrational. When we do it, it’s of our own free will, and out of genuine feelings, because it’s true. We thought that they had to pretend to believe in flimsy manufactured evidence that the enemy is evil and an imminent threat. Whereas we, on the other hand, really do believe it. Just like when we believe in specious promises that the spoils of war will pay for its cost, or in the lie that that war is over just because our leaders say it is, we’re not pretending. When we mourn and beatify heads of state who’ve done reprehensible things, or riot when our home team wins or loses a championship game, we really mean it. We didn’t think they really meant it too.

    You make a good point, Michael, but there is also another level of psychology at work in the awkwardly theatrical puzzlement and speculation about grieving North Koreans–it’s an opportunity to retell our own mythology and show that it is, when we compare ourselves to a place like North Korea, at least somewhat true. Ten years on, some of us are still in denial about how easy it is for even a “free” and “brave” population that is distracted by fear and confusion to be manipulated by those with the means to do so.

    • http://www.bagnewsnotes.com Michael Shaw

      I was also thinking to riff on U.S. delusions, the media and the public largely enabling the campaign for war with Iraq being top of my mind. N. Korea has no corner on delusion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=699726629 Dave McLane

    I’ve never been in North Korea so I don’t have any data on which to base a conclusion as to what we are seeing.

    However, I spent six years on the road across Asia (London to Kyoto) and spent 18 years in Japan where I not only witnessed but took part in what I would call “mass emotion” numerous times in various places along the way. I’ve never had that experience in the US and only a few times in Europe.

    Through my understanding of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) I spent a fair amount of time trying to understand the physical aspect of the phenomena and after years of study I came to the conclusion that many/most of the time Asians (especially from India –> Japan) breath in unison (and probably have similar heart beats) after being in close proximity for at least 20 minutes.

    It’s hard to detect this phenomena in a moving crowd, but I rode the same 30 minute train out of Osaka to where I lived for many years and I could see with my own two eyes how people across the aisle were breathing (except in winter when they were all bundled up). By the third stop, they were all pretty much breathing together and had entered what I call the “Qi Pool.”

    During those 18 years, I was what was called an “English Teacher” but in fact I was more of an English Coach as most of the people who came to my classes had already had over 200 hours of written English but couldn’t order a cup of coffee verbally.

    The question arose whether they were having difficulty speaking English, or were they having difficulty speaking with people they didn’t know (in the sense of being in a Qi Pool). I spent time watching how women gathered in front of my local supermarket to talked and, sure enough, they quickly entered the Qi Pool. Thus I used NLP strategies to induce my students to breath together and everything changed.

    My overall (working) conclusion (always ready for an update) is that in the US, a gathering of people almost never enters a Qi Pool and what passes for discussion is — to Asian eyes — an argument (ask my Japanese wife, she’ll tell you). However, the style of gatherings for Occupy Phoenix is a horse of a different color as the oft repeated Mic Checks looks like they get people breathing, and thus feeling, in harmony.

    I don’t have any hard data as an example except for a video of a long line of people waiting (what looked like a Qi Pool) together at a temple on New Year’s Day in 1994. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epx5IJOaIR4&list=UUNnF_QXqagQT_XAiSUhq81g&index=14&feature=plcp

    • http://www.bagnewsnotes.com Michael Shaw

      Dave, I’m glad you brought collective behavior back into this. It’s another aspect of cultural difference that seems largely inaccessible.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jaime-Oria/100000803147037 Jaime Oria

    In addition to seconding other commenters’ agreement with Michael Shaw’s analysis, I’ll just add that here in the US, anyway, there’s always been a general bafflement with, if not outright sneering at, the public displays of grief exhibited by people in the Middle East and elsewhere.  I’m thinking of adults in Iraq during funerals and the aftermath of various attacks, and especially the video’ed funerals in Iran of assorted high-ranking clergy.  Didn’t an essentially grief-driven riot break out at Khomeni’s funeral?  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jaime-Oria/100000803147037 Jaime Oria

    2 more points -
    Here in the USA, saying “Oh, they’re being so strong” is a mark of approval when a woman or child is holding back their grief while it’s automatically expected of a man.

    Mr. Criddler is an imbecile.

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  • http://www.bagnewsnotes.com Michael Shaw

    Dave, I’m glad you brought collective behavior back into this. It’s another aspect of cultural difference that seems largely inaccessible.

  • User

    that could be considered as North ocean.

  • Michael

    Let me return to the of grief and its public expression. I’ve done fieldwork in a number of places, including Sri Lanka, India, Protestant Midwest, and a Sicilian Catholic immigrant population on the East Coast, and have collected the evidence of ethnography for a much wider variety of societies across the world. There is variation in the ways individual people express grief, but certainly convention plays a huge part. The stolid WASP reaction to death could not be further from the Sicilian Catholic, the Hindu holy man’s reaction could not be further from that of the Hindu lay person, and the expression of anger that is taken to be the first mark of grief in parts of Papua New Guinea could not be further from Balinese self-containment. Let me put it this way: people have to learn to deal with grief. How do they learn? They learn from those around them.

    Then, of course, it’s possible that you yourself don’t feel the grief that others are feeling. What do you do? You most probably try to fit in, fit with the mood, or at least do your best to do so, and in that respect you could teach yourself to feel the grief you didn’t initially feel. And so it goes, through all the colors and shadings of inescapable emotion or indifference, social adaptation, and on the spot improvisation.

    I agree, too, that Americans often think themselves *in the mass* to be rugged individualists, and so to feel themselves to be so very distant from Asian mass emotion. It is the sort of handy automatic Us and Them trope that saves having to figure out what’s going on. And it would be no wonder that photos of grieving masses meet one reception here, and another there.

    But if you really want to know what’s going on, I’m afraid you’re going to have to head straight to Pyongyang, ready for a long stay. And don’t forget to pack your long johns

  • Tzctplus -

    Do you remember the aftermath of Diana Princess of Wales’ death?

    There is still some explanation to be done about people and how they relate with public figures, but I am in no doubt that the reaction of these people are genuine given that the media over there feed them a constant idolization of their Leader.

    It is quite like having a public figure in our 24×7 media, the difference being the sinister political background underpinning things in NK.

    • tinwoman

      You are probably right for some portion of these people.  I knew young Pakistanis coming into college in the later 80s after a steady diet of Zia worship fed to them in school and they could be pretty scary.  But not ALL of them, or even I would say a majority.

      Let’s say SOME of them probably actually bought this stuff, the low I.Q. ones.

  • Microbe_Hunter

    This type of hysteria, in my view is all about self preservation. Why/How?  It reminds me of the Soviet congress (whatever it’s called) when Joseph Stalin was the big boss.  This jackass would get applause that lasted for hours….I remember one commentator saying the applause for Stalin lasted for over 3 hours on one occasion.  Why?  It was said the reason was that NO ONE wanted to be the first to stop applauding and cause attention to himself…thereby bringing suspicion from that murderer, Stalin or his crew of henchmen as to their loyalty.  Who would dare to be so vile a retch who would stop applauding after a mere 1 or 2 minutes.  So the applause would go on and on  and on…..MINDLESSLY! 
           It is interesting to note that when the former Stalin”supporter” Nikita Khrushchev came into power in the Soviet Union one of Khrushchev’s first acts was to get rid of Stalin’s body that from the day of his death had been laying in-state in the museum  along with Lenin’s body.  Khrushchev explained that Stalin was “EVIL” and did not deserve such respect.  So Stalin’s  body was removed and to my mind was likely put in a trash dump were it belonged!!.   But Khrushchev was one of those who had applauded Stalin for hours on end.  It was all about self-preservation…
          It is worthy to note that Nikita Khrushchev was also a Ukrainian!!  And what people suffered more under that vile filth, Stalin than the Ukrainians??……Over 25,000,000 Ukrainian people were caused to starved to death by Stalin….  

  • tinwoman

    Who does not mourn loudly enough will be suspected by those around them, remarked upon, reported by the neighbors, then imprisoned or shot.

    I think it is really this simple.

    Dave McLane’s comments are interesting and enlightening but frankly people have stronger inner lives than we often believe and I think these poor people know full this man was an evil little letch who lived a life of private luxury at their expense and despised him for it.

    They are sobbing for sheer terror that they will be noticed and rounded up by somebody for something, whatever.

    USSR under Stalin and beyond, China under Mao, East Germany under the Stasi all worked on this basis and there is no real reason to believe North Korea is any different.  At one time in DDR 50% of all adults were in the pay of the Stasi as informers and in NK it may be even more extreme.

    I wouldn’t get too tangled up in the Mysterious Asian Mind-Meld thing.  It’s another Western trope.  These people are afraid, they are terrorized daily to the bottom of their souls.  And that’s it.

  • tinwoman

    Who does not mourn loudly enough will be suspected by those around them, remarked upon, reported by the neighbors, then imprisoned or shot.

    I think it is really this simple.

    Dave McLane’s comments are interesting and enlightening but frankly people have stronger inner lives than we often believe and I think these poor people know full this man was an evil little letch who lived a life of private luxury at their expense and despised him for it.

    They are sobbing for sheer terror that they will be noticed and rounded up by somebody for something, whatever.

    USSR under Stalin and beyond, China under Mao, East Germany under the Stasi all worked on this basis and there is no real reason to believe North Korea is any different.  At one time in DDR 50% of all adults were in the pay of the Stasi as informers and in NK it may be even more extreme.

    I wouldn’t get too tangled up in the Mysterious Asian Mind-Meld thing.  It’s another Western trope.  These people are afraid, they are terrorized daily to the bottom of their souls.  And that’s it.

  • tinwoman

    I would add, that all people desire freedom in the personal, political, and emotional/psychological sense.  It’s universal, not a particularly American value.  It’s one of the higher order values in the Maslow hierarchy of needs, but it is there.

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  • tinwoman

    I would respectfully suggest that the supposed ant-like uniformity of the Asian Hive Mind is another Western stereotype.  In fact this whole letters thread is pregnant with malignant cultural steretypes—I mean Sicilian funerals, really?

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