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What's behind North Koreans' grief over Kim Jong-il's death?

A man in Pyongyang cries over the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in this Dec. 19, 2011 still image taken from video.

CCTV via Reuters TV/Reuters/CCTV via Reuters TV/Reuters

What are we to make of scenes of grief-stricken North Koreans weeping publicly over the death of the their leader Kim Jong-il and the state newscaster fighting back the tears as she announces the death of 'Dear Leader'?

Are these the requisite tears brought on by fear in a country known for its political prisoner camps, famines and food rations? Or are they genuine, spontaneous scenes of a people mourning their departed 'Dear Leader'?

"I think what we're seeing in the news reports of people spontaneously crying in the street is genuine. All they've ever known is Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung so this is a nightmare for many people," photographer Mark Edward Harris told the BBC World Service. Mr. Harris has visited North Korea seven times and published his photo journey "Inside North Korea" in 2007. A selection of those photographs can be viewed here.

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During a live Globe and Mail chat on Kim Jong-il's death, the Globe's International Affairs and Security Correspondent Paul Koring had this to say about the outpouring of grief: "In closed societies where relentless propaganda portrays the leader as the saviour of the nation, as the great protector in the face of terrible outside dangers, then the loss of the leader is a traumatic moment."

The power of North Korea's subtle and not-so-subtle myth-making machine around the Kim dynasty has been well-documented by The Globe and Mail's Mark Mackinnon: from the deification of Il-sung, who remains "eternal leader" so many years after his death; the myth surrounding Jong-il's birth, foretold by a swallow, unfolding at the foot of a sacred Korean mountain (when most academics say he was born in the Soviet Union), and met with a double rainbow and brand new star in the sky; and the ramped-up efforts to glorify the little-known successor Kim Jong-un, who is now leader.

But these scenes of grief do not tell the entire story of how North Koreans, in spite of the myth-making, viewed the leadership of Kim Jong-il.

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who visited North Korea in 2007 and 2008, made the interesting observation today that North Koreans, in fact, "never really warmed up to" Kim Jong-il.

Starvation, widespread poverty, and a military-first policy no doubt contributed to that lack of warmth to 'Dear Leader'. Compare today's scenes to the outpouring of grief, bordering on hysteria, when his father Kim Il-sung , or 'Great Leader', died in 1994.

With Kim Jong-il's state funeral scheduled for December 28th, there will be more scenes of public grief and more North Koreans weeping in the streets asking, "How could he leave us like this?", there are two things to keep in mind:

1) North Koreans understand the consequences of any 'misstep.' Amnesty International has documented the existence of political prisoner camps that hold an estimated 200,000 political prisoners and their families. In the Yodok camp, which holds an estimated 50,000 men, women and children, the winter temperatures can drop to -30 degrees Celsius, there are few blankets to go around, 40 per cent of prisoners die of malnutrition, and there are regular public executions by firing squad or hangings in front of prisoners.

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2) Political persecution aside, there is the very real threat of starvation. After North Koreans have finished their public displays of anguish - real or not - they face a serious food crisis. In fact, the country has lurched from one food crisis to another since the 1990s, when a famine killed at least one million North Koreans. With winter in full-swing, North Korea is experiencing another food shortage. The World Food Program, which has been providing food aid for over 15 years, earlier this year asked for $218 million in humanitarian aid.

North Korea needs 739,000 tons of grain this year. However, North Korea only plans on importing about half of that. A United Nations team that did an assessment in the country this autumn found the state rationing system only able to provide a third - or seven ounces of grain - of the minimum daily energy intake and that malnutrition cases in pediatric wards had doubled from 2010.

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About the Author

Affan Chowdhry is the Globe's multimedia reporter specializing in foreign news. Prior to joining the Globe, he worked at the BBC World Service in London creating international news and current affairs programs and online content for a global audience. More

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