Michael Totten

Totalitarian Grief

This video of North Koreans crying hysterically about their tyrant Kim Jong Il’s death is as strange as it is disturbing.

I can’t say I understand exactly what I’m looking at here, but I’ve keenly studied totalitarian regimes and have visited enough totalitarian and post-totalitarian countries that I can make an educated guess.

A spectrum of opinion exists in North Korea just like anywhere else. On one end is some percentage of the population that is willing to drink the Kool Aid, so to speak, because they’re more susceptible to propaganda than others or because they benefit from the system personally. There are also those who are terrified of the consequences if they resist, so they force themselves to try to believe it. Then there are those who can lie on the outside, but not on the inside. They know perfectly well that the Kim family dynasty is a horror show. A rather large number of North Koreans have escaped with their lives or died trying. Some of those have dedicated themselves to smuggling their comrades out through an underground railroad of sorts into China.

That’s the spectrum, more or less, but everyone, every single last person, goes through the motions of belief, and in the case above, grief, no matter what they feel secretly on the inside. If they don’t, they will be sent to a gulag. They are better actors than we are because they’ve been honing that skill their entire life. They practice every single day, which is probably more than can be said of our Hollywood actors.

Especially in full-bore Stalinist systems like North Korea’s, would-be dissidents feel like they’re completely alone, that no one else has any idea the emperor is naked. That’s why these regimes will mobilize massive state resources just to locate and punish a single graffiti artist. It’s critically important that everyone who hates the government feels like they’re the only people who do so.

But there are always genuine supporters. My guess is that most or all of the people in the video above are genuine supporters. They aren’t at all likely to be a random sampling of the population. The fact that they live in Pyongyang alone means they aren’t a random sample because the capital city is reserved for those deemed the most loyal.

The regime knows perfectly well that it has haters among the citizenry and would make sure that none of them, or at least precious few of them, were in front of that camera. It would be a mistake for us to watch that video and assume everyone in the country feels the way they do. It’s even possible that not all of them feel the way they appear to.

UPDATE: Kyle Smith, author of a dispatch from North Korea which I published here recently (the second part is coming soon), wrote the following in the comments section.

Those drinking the Kool Aid are the same ones who are terrified. Some of the highest ministers are often arrested and executed (even publicly) when things go wrong, as a convenient scapegoat. A few years ago, after a major currency devaluation, one of the leaders of the Workers’ Party was executed.

Thanks to the import of South Korean media via smugglers coming from China, the cat is largely out of the bag. People who said they were die-hard believers up until the 1990s have since learned that, unlike what the state tells them, they do not in fact enjoy the world’s highest standard of living.

When visiting, the people can say certain things, though, that give you a hint that they know what’s going on, and that they don’t like it.

I’m not sure I agree [that the people in the video above are genuine supporters]. In most of the videos I’ve seen, you see a lot of crying, but few tears. Living in Pyongyang means you have a level of privilege but they have not been immune to the difficulties the nation has faced in the past (and present). Whatever they feel in their hearts, the gov’t is certain that they can get them to show grief on-demand. Just like in Bucharest in 1989, people were cheering for Ceausescu minutes before they turned against him. I think what was in their hearts was the same; what changed was an opportunity to express it. Pyongyang, too, according to dissidents, has an established underground resistance movement which has engaged in acts of defacing public monuments and putting up signs denouncing the leadership.

But then again, who knows? One thing that stands out to me is that one major dissident in Seoul in 1994 said that in spite of the horror he endured and the years he spent working against the regime after he escaped from it, he still cried when he heard that Kim Il Sung died. And he wasn’t quite sure why he did.

These regimes along with their personality cults are not haphazard. They know exactly what they are doing and the propaganda is highly tailored to really make everyone buy it.

It’s hard to say, but I think that many people probably feel anger at the regime while paradoxically feeling some sorrow at the same time. Such is how brainwashing works.