Thoughts and Reflections on the Death of Kim Jong-il

William Wu

Kim Jong-il Death

Epiphany for Kim Jong-il

There have been much speculation about its implication on the future of the North Korean regime, regional stability, and its relationship with the wider world. I am no expert in North Korean politics, so I will leave such speculation to the more knowledgeable experts and pundits. Here I would like to share some brief thoughts of mine on culture after seeing the footage of public mourning in North Kore for Kim Jong-il.

We’ve all seen those footage out of North Korea after Kim Jong-il’s death: thousands of grief-stricken mourners lined the streets of Pyongyang, wailing and pounding their chests as the funeral procession moved past them. Loud lamentations abound, no one seemed to want to be outdone by others in their show of grief for Kim Jong-il. Such mass display of grief appeared surreal. To most Western observers, it probably appeared peculiar and absurd.

The mass grief reminded me of the scenes in China when Deng Xiaoping passed away in February 1997. I was but eight years old at the time in China. Deng’s funeral was televised live. I remember, as the procession passed the streets of Beijing, large crowds of people surrounded the streets. There were similar mass displays of grief. Young kids wailed in the arms of their grieving parents, as old ladies cried until they fainted, all in a sea of loud lamentations.

Was this massive outpouring of grief genuine? I, a young impressionable kid at the time, thought so. I felt nothing strange in the manner of the public mourning. After all, we all knew that Deng Xiaoping was a great leader. It was under his direction that China liberalized its economy, which led to the rapid growth in the 1990s. I took it for granted that people loved him, and loved him so much as that they were willing to stand in the bitter cold of the Beijing winter and mourn his passing at such a scale.

Now, after seeing the similar scenes in North Korea for Kim Jong-il, I’m no longer so sure. There is no doubt in my mind that much of the public grief in North Korea was either staged or a result of decades of indoctrination. Deng Xiaoping was a much better leader than Kim Jong-il. But even so, was Deng such a great leader that his passing could naturally command outpouring of grief at such a scale? I doubt it.

Kim Jong-il’s death has lead me to re-examine many things I learned in school in China. It saddens me that it took the absurdity of Kim Jong-il to prompt me to re-examine the absurdity in the things I took for granted all these years.