Monday, 19 December 2011

The death of a leader, and the freedom we take for granted

The people of North Korea are in mourning today after the announcement of the death of their leader, Kim Jong-il. He suffered a heart attack and died on Saturday, although the news was not announced until last night.

From a world perspective, there is apprehension over the stability of the area, with South Korea and Japan putting their forces on high alert. But I wonder about this from a different perspective.

Footage has been broadcast of people openly wailing in the streets, clearly grief-stricken over the death of their leader. The radio broadcasts here have played clips of the news broadcaster who announced the death, crying almost uncontrollably. And I wonder how people can be so conditioned to act in this way.

The answer has to be control. If David Cameron or the queen died, it would be headline news within minutes, with there being “unconfirmed reports” of what was happening, until the events could be confirmed. Yet in North Korea a whole day had elapsed before people even knew that their leader was dead. Even if media were banned from reporting such events over here, the power of the internet is such that the news would certainly make it into the public domain within hours.

I can’t imagine living somewhere where the only information that was accessible to me was that which was made available to me by my country’s leadership, to the extent that I had no knowledge of happenings in the world beyond my country. If we move back from recent reporting, some may recall that the North Koreans were told that their country’s football team had won the 2010 World cup. As they have no access to information beyond that which they are allowed to have, the people of North Korea are oblivious to the fact that their team was in fact knocked out of the tournament in the first round. And now they have been told their leader died on Saturday. Except they were not told on Saturday they were told last night, and yet they are still out there sobbing in the streets. And I wonder, are they out there crying because they feel sadness that their leader is dead? or are they crying because they fear the consequences if they don’t? Or do they even know why they are crying?

I recently wrote about peoples’ reactions when celebrities die, and the often outpourings of emotion that follow, with mourners arriving at the house/hospital/scene of death to pay their respects and lay tributes. But these are spontaneous outpourings of grief, expressed for people that are often admired for their talents, and on the whole, many people do take a rather dim view of these outpourings.

But this is different. In a country where people are conditioned to worship their leader, where the outpouring of grief and emotion is clearly orchestrated, I can’t help wondering whether people would dare not be seen to be in mourning, and whether it is in fact genuine emotion on their part because they know no different. And I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in a country where even your emotional responses are dictated, and where you are conditioned how to react and when.

I can only hope that there will come a point when the people of North Korea will rise up against this regime, but in the meantime I am glad that I was not unfortunate enough to be born in a country where even freedom of emotional expression (or lack thereof) is not permitted.

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