The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il has led to some very strange television–the Dear Leader lying in state, throngs of North Koreans weeping uncontrollably, even rumors of miracles such as grieving birds.
The images coming out of North Korea led to a discussion with some of my Facebook friends over whether or not the outpouring of grief was genuine or staged. I lean towards staged, since the only news we’re getting is from the state media, which has tried to raise Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung to the status of demigods. Then again, in the cloistered lives the North Koreans live, perhaps they do feel a sense of loss. Even the BBC discussed the issue and came to the conclusion that we can’t know for sure.
The whole thing made me remember my trip to Syria back in 1994. Pictures of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and his family were everywhere–in shops, on the streets, in the front rooms of private homes–as you can see in this photo of what looks like a hotel lobby with portraits of Hafez and his son Bashar, courtesy flickr user Bombardier. Bashar now rules Syria (perhaps not for long) but it was his older brother Bassel who was supposed to take over. When I was there it was common to see photos of Bassel and Hafez side by side, and most Syrians assumed he’d rule Syria one day.
In Syria in those days, if you kept your nose clean the authorities generally left you alone. If you stood up against the government, they leveled your city. So Syrians toted the line in public. In private, however, many quietly told me how much they hated the regime. One admitted he’d never say such things to a fellow Syrian for fear that he may be a member of the secret police. In Syria, there are lots of secret police.
Then, on 22 January 1994, Bassel died in a car accident. I’ll never forget the grim military music that played on the state radio and television for several days afterwards, and the constant coverage the state media gave to his life and unexpected death. As soon as the news broke that first day I went out onto the streets of Damascus. Shops were closed and there were far more soldiers and police on the streets than usual. A rally was already forming in one of the main squares.The rally wasn’t very big, just a few dozen young men chanting slogans in support of the regime. There was no counter demonstration. Strangely, the cops seemed to be trying to calm the most vocal supporters. One young man got onto the shoulders of another to be more visible and started loudly chanting the praises of Hafez al-Assad. The cop made him get down and stop. It seemed that any outspoken statement, even one in support of the government, was viewed with suspicion.
The government declared several days of national mourning. All shops were to remain closed. I had befriended a shopkeeper near my hotel, a friendly fellow with good English who changed money at a black market rate for a steady stream of backpackers. Let’s call him Samir. I won’t tell you his real name or occupation for obvious reasons.
Samir lived frugally. I got the impression all that hard currency was going somewhere else. A nest egg? Support for extended family? I never asked. He was like many such people I’ve met in my travels in that he enjoyed talking to foreigners as much as he enjoyed making money off of them. I changed money with him only a few times, but every day we sat sipping sweet Arabic tea and having long conversations about everything except politics. Samir never discussed politics, not even on January 22.
In fact, all Syrians were silent with me on the subject of Bassel’s death. While they didn’t look choked up about it, they didn’t want to risk saying anything about the dead son of the dictator, not even to a foreigner. I saw no evidence of grief, not even at that rally. Those young men in the square only seemed to be doing some very public brown nosing. The rest of the people of Damascus just went about their day-to-day lives and kept quiet.
The days of mourning were declared over and Samir reopened his shop. I was just about to enter for our morning tea when a cop showed up. He told Samir that the mourning period was still on, and demanded to know why the shop was open. Samir cringed and pleaded that the radio said the mourning period was over. The cop told him that was wrong (it turned out they’d extended it at the last minute) and that he better close his store quick. Then the cop left. He could have hauled Samir before a judge, or demanded a bribe to keep him out of jail. Instead he just walked away. Perhaps he wasn’t fond of the al-Assad family either.
It was the least mournful period of national mourning I’ve ever seen.
So are the tears for Kim Jong-il genuine? If Syria is anything to judge by, they aren’t, but Syria and North Korea are two very different cultures and Syrians were never as cut off from the world as the North Koreans. So, as usual with the world’s most isolated country, we once again have to shrug our shoulders and say we don’t know.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Kim Jong-il’s death, besides the political instability, is that the passing that same week of Václav Havel has not received the attention it deserves. Havel was a dissident playwright in Communist Czechoslovakia who refused to stop making his art despite being repeatedly imprisoned by the government. In 1989, Communism fell and he became president, helping to lead his country’s transition to democracy. He did it with no bloodshed and a minimum of ill-will. And then he went back to his writing. Check out this obituary of Václav Havel to learn more about a leader whose death really does deserve tears.