Why North Koreans Cried for Kim Jong Il

A couple weeks ago, I criticized a CNN article that stated that North Koreans “revere” recently deceased communist dictator Kim Jong Il, without noting that those who fail to show officially mandated reverence for the “Dear Leader” are likely to face severe sanctions from the government.

To its credit, CNN went on to publish a piece by John Sifton of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division that takes a more realistic view of the reasons why North Koreans express support for their brutal government:

Since Kim Jong Il’s death was announced…., many people have marveled at the mourning scenes featured on North Korean state television, made viral on the Internet: North Koreans prostrate, weeping, hitting the ground. Many have asked whether the anguish is genuine. How could citizens mourn the passing of a totalitarian, such a gross abuser of human rights?

The answer may be found in the human rights abuses themselves.

It is a lamentable characteristic of totalitarian regimes that they often demand acts of deceit from those they oppress. Often it is a matter of simple survival. Those who hate the regime are obliged to demonstrate patriotism. To fail is to risk persecution. The only alternative is to flee, a choice made by tens of thousands of North Koreans in the past two decades.

North Korea is unambiguously a totalitarian state. An estimated 200,000 North Koreans are held under brutal conditions in remote forced labor camps called kwan-li-so. Citizens are deprived of the freedom to speak, to dissent, to assemble, to seek remedies for grievances. Perhaps worst of all, there is no freedom from fear — knowing that one can be imprisoned and tortured for minor trifles, sent to a kwan-li-so for being related to someone who displeased the state, or face a kangaroo court trial and possible public execution for a long list of political or economic “crimes.”

The great Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, who died on the same day as Kim Jong Il, wrote about the phenomenon of coerced expressions of public support for totalitarian regimes in his classic book The Power of the Powerless. Enforced conformity is even more draconian in North Korea than it was in the USSR and Eastern Europe.

As I noted in my previous post on this issue, the fact that many North Koreans expressed support for Kim Jong Il out of fear does not prove that he didn’t have any genuine supporters. Some people really do love Big Brother, especially after decades of indoctrination. However, expressions of popular support for totalitarian rulers should not be taken at face value.