Tears for 'Dear Leader' show strength of North Korea's personality cult

The Toronto Star/December 19, 2011

First blood and sweat. Now tears.

During North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's regime, he starved, tortured and imprisoned his people without mercy. Untold thousands died over 17 years of misrule.

So why were so many weeping over his death?

"The one-word answer is 'fear,'" said Randall Baran-Chong, executive director of the Toronto-based human rights organization HanVoice.

"People are scared. Your neighbour watches your behaviour. Not to cry would be a sign of disloyalty — and people are thrown into prison for that."

On national broadcasts Monday, news readers choked back sobs as they announced 69-year-old Kim's death from an apparent heart attack while travelling in his train.

Reports from the heavily censored state say that people who heard of his demise burst into tears on the streets of the capital Pyongyang.

"Most of the people alive today have only known the Dear Leader (Kim Jong-il) or the Great Leader (his father Kim Il-sung), who were focal points for the country," said Donald Rickerd, a Korea expert at University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. "Some of the grief may be genuine."

Whatever its motivation, the public outpouring rises from North Korea's bizarre cult of personality, which institutionalized leader-worship starting with Kim's father Kim Il-sung, who created the state that has become synonymous with secrecy and repression.

"North Korea is an anachronism in the modern world," said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "It's more of a dynasty than a democracy."

Kim Il-sung launched the personality cult after he founded North Korea in 1948, in the aftermath of World War II. But although he pulled the country into a losing war to reunite the north and south, his "self reliance" policy for the economy paid off in rapid early growth.

"When I mentioned the death of the Great Leader to a very sophisticated Korean, whom I wouldn't have thought to be that committed, it brought tears to his eyes," Rickerd recalled.

There may be considerably less emotion for Kim Jong-il. Under his brutal regime, food shortages and famine wiped out lives and livelihoods, and his belligerence toward neighbouring South Korea and Japan — and the development of nuclear weapons — discouraged aid.

"North Korea systematically violates the basic rights of its population," said Human Rights Watch. "It allows no organized political opposition, free media, functioning civil society or religious freedom. Arbitrary arrest, detention, lack of due process and torture and ill-treatment of detainees remain serious and endemic problems."

There is also collective punishment that forces entire families of suspected offenders into draconian labour camps.

"There are some people who benefited from Kim Jong-il's rule, and their grief was genuine — but self-interested," said Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Korea expert who follows the workings of the isolated state closely.

But he said Kim Jong-il was much less loved than his father, and his son Kim Jong-un, expected to become North Korea's new leader, may be even less so.

"With each generation, you get a paler copy," Noland said.

Some have suggested the heir presumptive, thought to be 28, may have taken a short cut to the personality cult with plastic surgery to enhance a resemblance to his revered grandfather.

"If you look at pictures, there's clearly a resemblance," said Noland. "The hair and the clothing style are similar too."

Whether Kim Jong-un will be a forceful enough personality to rule the country independently is still in doubt.

"Unless there is a military coup, which is doubtful, it will probably be a few years before we know who's really in charge," Noland said. "The downside is that there will be a government too weak or insecure to make concessions (on arms control). And I can imagine him being tempted to stage another (military) provocation to establish himself as a strong leader."

For now, he added, "the National Defence Commission is essentially the country's steering committee. The question really is, will he be ruling or just reigning?"

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