As much as we like to think we know about North Korea, major events such as the recent death of their “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il remind us just how little we actually know about the elusive country. Journalists, politicians, and researchers alike have been trying to make sense of the situation over the past few weeks. Many are proffering their own theories of what will become of the country as Kim Jong Un attempts to take power. Ideas range from a potential attack on the south, an opening up of the country, a military coup, or simply a continuation of the status quo. I have my own theories as well, but I will be the first to admit that theories are all they are. In situations such as this it is important to not get ahead of ourselves, and to shy away from pontificating about definite outcomes. There are so many details that remain unknown.
With that said, I will not use this post to offer my theories about the future of North Korea. What I will attempt to do is give a bit of insight for those unfamiliar with the region and the volatility of the situation.
One of the questions I continually get from those I speak with is whether the reactions of the North Korean citizens being shown on TV are real. Is it possible these people are truly upset over the loss of a leader the majority of the world views as vicious and teetering on mentally unstable? For those who have not seen the clips, here is one of the more popular videos of North Korean citizens mourning Kim Jong Il.
The answer to this question is yes ... and no.
While I do not have a definite answer as to why these particular people are wailing, I do have some suggestions of what you might take into consideration as you attempt to understand the citizens of North Korea.
First of all, there are those who have been well taken care of under the current regime. They have received aid, have good jobs, and live reasonably comfortable lives. In a country where it is feared many are dying of starvation, this group is incredibly lucky. They might believe they have reason to be thankful and appreciative to a leader who has allowed them to live so well.
Secondly, the citizens of North Korea are continually told Kim Jong Il is nothing less than the savior of their nation. There is a definite level of indoctrination at play here. It might be difficult to understand, but with little to no contact with the outside world it is feasible that there are those who truly believe he is a great leader. If they are among the elite who were taken care of under his regime, they have little reason to believe otherwise.
The third thing to take into consideration is the great consequence of not mourning in the most overt way. A few months back I wrote a piece titled, "North Korea's Not-So-Secret Prison Camps," wherein I discussed the existence of gulag-esque camps holding approximately 200,000 political prisoners. The crimes of these prisoners range from criticizing the leadership, to being in contact with South Koreans, to simply guilt by association. More often than not any sentencing to these camps becomes a death sentence. Thus, it is of utmost importance for citizens to prove their devotion by projecting great sadness over Kim Jong Il's death. Doing so is essential not only to their safety, but that of their family and friends.
This list is obviouly not exhaustive, but hopefully gives a glimpse into a few of the reasons for the outpouring of sadness from the North Korean people. To call North Korea a complicated situation is beyond an understatement. There is more to be said, and I plan to follow this situation as it evolves. I welcome any additions those of you with knowledge of the region and the people might have to contribute. Furthermore, feel free to post any other questions you would like to see me delve into in the coming weeks.
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