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Death of a Bad God

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Pyongyang, North Korea - memorial for Kim Jong-il - 1 million estimated mourners - image KCNA - Reuters

Seen it already? Probably. It was all over the TV, YouTube’s full of it and now everybody knows a new thing about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Kim Jong-il, Supreme Leader (Our Father, Dear Leader, Our General) died at work, on a train, of a heart attack, just before Christmas.

It’s made us – the rest of the world, capitalists, China too – afraid. The Great Successor, Kim Jung-un, is young, inexperienced, an unknown quantity. He takes over an isolated, totalitarian nuclear state. He’s 28. He likes basketball. He suffers from hypertension. He’s surrounded by a bunch of savvy, purge-avoiding, super political generals. It’s serious.

But more than this, it’s made us look at something different: the spectacle of a country in grief, the spectacle of a country that is all about spectacle making. Is it real? What makes millions of people cry uncontrollably, slap the ground, all for one man? Why (sometimes) do it in perfect lines, in such uncrowd-like shapes? We’re curious. Morbidly so.

mourners lining Jong-il's funeral procession - image KCNA - Reuters

Well, one answer is that North Korea is the finest propaganda machine the modern world has ever seen. Supported by the party, the media (there is no news in this place), and by a litany of public holidays, cultural events and special occasions, Jong-il was god. Literally. He made time bend, the land live. He was why we are happy. A god has died. Mourn him. Mourn him big.

Yes, but was he his dad? Well, no, because he wasn’t a war hero; and he was transparently narcissistic (he invented the hamburger, you know); and he didn’t have a big toothy grin (really). Still, he had his dad’s ruthlessness, bags of it, and the army, a secret police force, a self-serving constitution, a policy induced famine and a punishment apparatus to rival anything anywhere.

So, millions of ranked mourners. What’s really going on? Mass choreographed or no? From what we know, and knowing isn’t easy, even dad’s 10 days of mourning was overwhelmingly organised, and mainly in Pyongyang, capital and home to the privileged, the loyal, the believers. So, neat million strong crowds of the genuine, the co-opted, the deeply afraid. We think.

Kim Jong-il

For more on North Korea, see Bradley Martin and Jiro Ishimaru, Kim Dong Cheol and the work of a number of North Korean insiders.


Written by FreeState

January 10, 2012 at 2:52 pm