Decoding Images from North Korea

This footage, seen by countless Americans on YouTube, leaves many with images that are easily misunderstood and are not easily decoded. To the common viewer, it most likely underlines the assumptions that Westerners already have of North Korea—that Kim Jong Il’s citizens loved him and Kim Il Sung and that the citizens have the same goals and ideals as the government. This footage, however, just like the propaganda videos broadcasting happy civilians, is state controlled, and therefore requires another look. The ultimate question is whether or not this act of grieving is voluntary or not, shedding light onto the real loyalty and culture of the citizens.

Pyongyang is mostly full of government party members. Those who are not directly party members are either related to them or potential members. This also makes sense of why this footage is shot in Pyongyang, since the residents’ wellbeing is dependent on the strength of the party. Therefore, it seems this could be completely voluntary. For instance, after Kim Il Sung’s death, the grieving lasted ten days. However, the press reportedly wanted more and therefore made organizations send members everyday to weep in front of his statue. A North Korean defector said of the grieving, “The entire country was swept up in a flood of tears. But there was also the fact that anything other than mourning was not allowed.” What pushed these public displays more are the surveys conducted by party leaders to keep track of who mourned and who did not, resulting in some punishments.

This mourning also flowed over into the open casket service, which Kim Jong Un attended.  As we watch throughout the next few days and weeks how various countries react to the leader’s death, it seems that one of the most important signals to watch are of North Korean citizens themselves. News reported that many citizens have fled the country at this time, but few really know how tight government control is right now.

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