Crying by numbers at Kim's state funeral

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The Independent Online
TENS of thousands of North Koreans lined the streets of Pyongyang yesterday to watch the funeral cortege of President Kim Il Sung pass by in a meticulously orchestrated display of emotion and synchronised weeping. Meanwhile his 52-year-old son, Kim Jong Il, was apparently preparing to sweep into power on this pan-national wave of grief, as every utterance of sorrow at the father's passing was accompanied by pledges to follow his son henceforth.

Kim Il Sung died on 8 July, of a heart attack, after leading North Korea down an isolationist and internally repressive path for 46 years of juche, self-reliance socialism. Although he chose his son as his successor 20 years ago, doubts over Kim Jong Il's grip on power persist and the funeral ceremonies appear carefully designed to enhance his image as the inheritor of his father's legacy.

Yesterday Kim Jong Il bowed repeatedly in front of his father's coffin, before it was driven on the back of a black limousine through the main streets of Pyongyang. It was preceded by an enormous portrait of the dead man mounted on another car and an arrow-like formation of several dozen motorbikes. A fleet of black Mercedes followed the cortege, hiding the most privileged mourners.

'Since rising as the son of the revolution, for 80 years he gave everything he had, he gave his life - is it true that the great heart stopped beating?' said one mourner to a North Korean television reporter. 'Dear Great Leader, you are leaving us, but with all our hearts we will heed Kim Jong Il's leadership,' said another.

'I just don't want to believe it . . . he is beside us, he will live forever,' said a young woman, whose sorrow forced her interviewer to dab tears away from his eyes with the ubiquitous white handkerchief that every citizen of Pyongyang seemed to be carrying yesterday.

Were the outpourings of grief entirely staged? 'Maybe some kind of organisation took place,' said Alexander Valiev, the Pyongyang correspondent for the Russian Tass news agency, by telephone. 'I saw many men in suits controlling order on the streets.' The crowds were uncannily orderly: the front row along every street had its toes aligned to the kerb and nobody pushed forward or jostled out of place. Even nature was not immune: 'Flowers in full bloom in busy streets of the capital have lost their fragrance,' reported the official North Korean news agency, KCNA.

It was almost crying by numbers, as the crowds broke into simultaneous mourning at the appearance of television cameras. Earlier North Korean television showed pictures of a family mourning at home, with large amounts of food conspicuously laid on a table in front of Kim Il Sung's picture, and footage of farmers mourning beside a field of ripening maize. Both sequences seemed designed to discredit stories of increasing food shortages in the country, while the mourners repeated the slogan of 'turning their sorrow into strength' to improve productivity under the new leader, Kim Jong Il.

But at the same time the sheer size of the crowds, the sound of the solemn dirges, the loss of a leader who, for better or worse, ruled over his people for half a century, and the uncertainty about the future was infectious. If some of the sloganeering mouthed by selected mourners for broadcast sounded wooden, many people none the less must have felt moved by the spectacle, and perhaps even distressed that their dedication to the 'great leader' for so many years had still not left them all with meat to eat, tiled roofs for their houses and heating inside - a failure Kim Il Sung himself admitted in his last New Year's speech this year. North Koreans, after all, have a lot to be sorry about.

'No you must not go that way' was a poem sent to the Rodong Sinmun newspaper in Pyongyang by a reader. But yesterday Kim Il Sung went that way. And for 22 million North Koreans, as the centre of their tightly sealed society fell through, there was little else to do but look miserable.

(Photograph omitted)