PERTH, Australia - North Koreans are showing their grief at the loss of their "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il. It is what they have been trained to do, beginning when his father, the late Kim Il Sung, came to power in the late 1940s.
We spent five days in North Korea in September, in a relative rarity for Americans, and witnessed firsthand what two generations of relentless propaganda can do to a national psyche. Every citizen wears a pin of "The-Great-Leader-President-Kim-Il-Sung," whose name is always said in exactly this phrasing. His image decorates every building, with larger-than-life statues everywhere.
A visit to his tomb is a sacred event, considered the pilgrimage of a lifetime. During our guided visit, we joined the ranks of somber North Koreans dressed in their finest. All were silent as we walked over a special apparatus that washed the bottoms of our shoes, and then through an air lock, in a cleansing ritual to prepare us for the visit.
Just before the tomb itself, we passed through a room with huge bronze bas-reliefs depicting scenes of field and factory workers grief-stricken upon learning of the elder Kim's death. To enhance this already melodramatic ambience, each visitor was given a headset in his or her native language with a narrative further explaining the scenes. The words were intoned in an accent reminiscent of an overemoting Shakespearean actor: "All over the world, people beat their breast in agony at the loss of such a great leader." By now, many of the North Korean visitors were crying openly, and it seemed as if Kim Il Sung's death had happened only days earlier.
For the majority of North Koreans, the "Leader Dynasty" is the only one they've ever known. Kim Jong Il perpetuated the myth that his father created North Korea as the center of the universe, with him as their benevolent protector. Having seen firsthand how sheltered they are, we don't find it surprising to see citizens weeping openly at his death. It is the behavior they have been schooled for all their lives.
There are glimmers of dissent, however brief. In the relative privacy of an elevator, we asked our guide at the Military Museum, which houses gnarled remains of downed U.S. aircraft from the Korean War, whether she enjoyed her job. She glanced quickly both ways and said quietly, "No, I was forced to do this by my parents." So whether the emotional outbursts at Kim Jong Il's death are genuine or are simply behavior according to protocol remains to be seen.