It may seem perverse, even obscene, that there are people weeping in the streets over the death of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il. From our perspective, the only rational explanation is that the tears are forced, a compulsory show of emotion for the cameras and, ultimately, the watchful eye of big brother.
Maybe some of them are fake, but I have little doubt that many are real and spontaneous. Russians wept when Stalin died, and mass hysteria is a powerful thing. All of England seemed to go to pieces when Princess Diana died. Some of that emotion was a natural response to the sad loss of a widely admired woman. But much of it was self-feeding, tears prompted by tears, emotion amplified and reinforced by the media. Many people enjoy crying in public, feeling emotions in concert with large crowds of people.
The isolation of North Korea is near absolute, so it’s no surprise that North Koreans can’t conceive of life without the Dear Leader. It seems as if he’s always been there, forever and ubiquitous, like the weather and the moon. It isn’t easy to disbelieve propaganda if your intellectual diet has never had healthier nourishment. North Koreans are likely tremendously worried about things people everywhere worry about: stability, order, continuity, where the rice is coming from. Even in totalitarian countries, there is a segment of the population that feels deeply invested in the regime.
I remember being in Romania in December 2004, the 15th anniversary of the execution of the tyrannical and capricious Nicolae Ceausescu. Few men have done as much violence to their people as Ceausescu, one of the last of the communist-era tyrants in Eastern Europe to fall. And yet as news channels replayed footage of the revolution that brought him down, there were elderly Romanians who felt nostalgic and even weepy about their long-gone version of the Dear Leader. The transition to capitalism and democracy (still a work in progress) was painful. No wonder some people pined for the old days.
It is possible, however, that the North Korean regime might misread the impact of these tears as much as we’d like to misread their authenticity. Weeping masses may seem like an endorsement of the family cult established by Kim Jong Il’s father, Kim Il Sung. On the surface, perhaps that’s true. But they are also manifestations of crowd power. People for whom the state is an organized spectacle — mass rallies, marches, airtight propaganda — are suddenly acting in the spectacle themselves. Emotions that seem to suggest genuine love of the leader are emotions nonetheless.
Elias Canetti, author of “Crowds and Power,” the bible of crowd thinking, described a moment in the psychology of crowds that he calls “the discharge,” when a group becomes a crowd. Individual feelings of difference, rank and position dissolve, and the crowd emerges as its own entity. The discharge is dangerous and thrilling, birthing an unknown thing capable of riot and revolution. By participating in a crowd, people become aware of the power of mass political action, and in some fundamental way, they become aware of themselves, too. It’s not much, at first, but the feeling can grow, morph into new forms and undermine old hierarchies and assumptions.
There is a very good reason why authoritarian regimes want to control every aspect of life: The slightest bit of dissonance can become destabilizing. Even people who genuinely feel sad about Kim’s death might wake up tomorrow, or next week, or a year from now, with an epiphany about their own power and their relation to the state, the germ of which was the tiny sense of empowerment and release that came from weeping in the streets.
The images of grief in the streets of Pyongyang aren’t just signs of devotion to a dead man. They are more like snapshots than formal portraits, a brief glimpse of a country not entirely controlled by the state. It might be better for those who hope for freedom that these tears are, in fact, unscripted, because in a land ruled by despots, the script is the problem.