Grieving A Fallen Despot

North Koreans are weeping in the streets, but is it of their own free will?

In this handout by the official North Korean media, residents of Pyongyang mourn for Kim Jong Il, Dec. 19, 2011.

North Korea’s capital Pyongyang appears paralyzed by grief with mourners seen in streets, wailing and beating their breasts in anguish over Kim Jong Il’s death. But many of them have been effectively forced to pay their respects to the “Dear Leader.”

Workers across the country have been summoned to their workplaces and asked to honor the dictator.

Sources within North Korea’s northeastern Ryanggang province told RFA that factories and companies around the country urgently called in their workers on Dec. 19 following the announcement of Kim’s death on state-run Korea Central TV.

“It took employees [in our area] more than two hours to get to their workplaces,” one source said.

He said that following the announcement, authorities instituted a “state of emergency,” requiring all North Koreans to pay their respects to their local statue of Kim Il Sung, the father of Kim Jong Il and North Korea’s founder.

But strict guidelines requiring North Koreans to honor their fallen leader were not limited to those within the country.

A source in China told RFA that on the day of Kim’s death, all North Koreans working for trading companies in China or those on business trips to the country were instructed to return home by North Korean officials.

“Everyone was told to return within one week, likely to coincide with the Dec. 28 funeral,” the source said.

And an ethnic Korean living in China said her relative, who was granted a 90-day Chinese visa, has had to cut short her trip despite having stayed for less than one month.

Other reports say border officials in North Korea will not allow their citizens to leave the country during the mourning period.

Japan’s Mainichi Daily News reported that on Dec. 19, nearly 1,000 North Korean residents in China’s Dandong city, near the border, returned en masse to North Korea.

The agency quoted one person as saying, “I've heard that if you don't hurry back to [North] Korea, you'll be punished.”

ShanghaiDaily said that beginning in the afternoon of Dec. 19, throngs of North Korean nationals were seen checking out early from major Dandong hotels.

It said North Korean-themed restaurants around the city with nightly entertainment shows had all been closed.

Period of mourning

North Korea will undergo 11 days of mourning ahead of Kim’s funeral on Dec. 28, during which shops will remain closed, flags will fly at half-mast, and mourners will pay their respects at memorials around the city.

No foreign dignitaries will be received in the capital during the mourning period and officials have said that all forms of entertainment are banned.

The official Korean Central News Agency reported Tuesday that North Koreans from all walks of life were “writhing in pain” and that their “wailing voices are rocking heaven and earth” after learning that Kim died from heart failure at the age of 69 during a train tour over the weekend.

The agency said that even former “long-term prisoners” threw themselves before a mosaic portraying the deceased leader lamenting that he had “passed away so early, even though he brought them … back to his fold and gave [them] happiness so that the whole world could envy them.”

On Tuesday, Kim’s body was put on display in a glass sarcophagus surrounded by blossoms of the national “kimjongilia” flower and covered in a red blanket.

The coffin was presented at the same mausoleum where the embalmed body of his father and national founder Kim Il Sung—has been on display since his death in 1994.

Associated Press Television News senior video journalist Rafael Wober, one of a handful of foreign reporters in North Korea covering Kim’s death, described the mood in the capital.

“All over the city you can see separate mourning events. Like here, outside one major meeting hall, hundreds of people are lining up to go and stand in front of the portrait of the deceased General Kim Jong Il—crying and wailing for a few minutes before they are moved along so that the next group can come up,” Wober said.

“This kind of thing is going on all over the city, and there is also a strong sense of mourning, in that the normal activity of shops and the normal way that people might drink, or eat, or enjoy themselves is basically discouraged during this period.”

Truly grieving?

Emotions on Tuesday were eerily similar to those on display by the public when Kim the elder died nearly two decades ago, but according to defectors now living in Seoul it is unlikely that the average North Korean has been truly affected by Jong Il’s passing.

“The people are criticizing him, even after he died. Yes, people are crying over his death. But there might be only a few of his family members, relatives, or party officials who are truly grieving—probably less than one percent of those who are crying,” one defector said.

Another defector said he was saddened that “the last people to hear the news were the North Koreans,” after the information had already been made public in South Korea, China, and Japan.

“About 15 minutes after the news of Kim Jong Il’s death came out, I talked to a broker who helps North Koreans escape the country … and asked him if he’d heard the news on the TV or radio. He said he hadn’t due to a blackout,” the second defector said.

“I told him that the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had died. He was shocked to hear the news. I told him more details. As was reported in the South Korean newspapers, some people were not aware of Kim Jong Il’s death until much later.”

Meanwhile, a North Korean refugee who settled in the U.S. told RFA that loyalty to Kim Jong Il had “already dried up” and that people are “not crying over Kim Jong Il’s death from the bottom of their hearts.”

“North Koreans are suffering from economic hardships with the Public Distribution System having been disrupted long ago,” the refugee said.

“North Koreans are in actuality grieving over his father Kim Il Sung’s passing,” he said, because they remembered the days under his rule as being better.

Another refugee who escaped North Korea three years ago told RFA that North Koreans were being forced to stay outside in the bitter cold guarding statues, historical objects, and propaganda paintings related to Kim Jong Il during the period of mourning and might be in danger of suffering from frostbite.

Reported by RFA’s Korean service. Translated by Bong Park. Written in English with additional reporting by Joshua Lipes.