The Wailing Heard Round the World: North Korea’s Grief Hits the Web

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A limousine carrying a portrait of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il leads his funeral procession past crowds on a street in Pyongyang in this still image taken from video December 28, 2011

Today, as images from the funeral of the late Kim Jong Il go out around the world, North Korean official media delivered what has to be one of the most surreal and widely witnessed pieces of state theater ever created. Set against the backdrop of a bleak, snowy Pyongyang, police cars’ headlights peered through a thick mist as they made their way through the North Korean capital’s empty streets to the refrain of a mournful band and undulating waves of wails and moans. Invisible newscasters’ voices quivered as cameras panned over North Korean military standing in the heavy snow in long, green winter coats. As the flag-draped coffin reportedly carrying Kim’s remains passed, flanked by military vehicles in tight formation, the soldiers took off their hats and bowed, snow falling on their heads.

Most of the mourners were not so restrained — and each howl, clutch, swoon and moan was duly captured by official cameras rolling from every angle. As a massive portrait of a smiling, chubby-cheeked Kim Jong Il rolled by atop a black limousine, men and women beat themselves and each other, some nearly collapsing to the ground. After ruling North Korea for 17 years, the isolated nation’s leader died on Dec. 17 from a heart attack at 69. At one point, the Dear Leader’s young son and named successor, Kim Jong Un, was photographed walking alongside the vehicle carrying the coffin.

In the 11 days since Kim’s death, news from Pyongyang has been scantier than usual. North Korean state media’s announcement on Dec. 19 – a full two days after his passing– apparently took the world by surprise, with governments in Washington, Beijing and Seoul all claiming to have had no knowledge he had died until the newscast. Since then, few foreigners have been allowed into the country, the only clues as to what lies ahead for the Hermit Kingdom coming from a trickle of state media reports about Kim Jong Un’s readiness to take over and images of the distressed populace.  (See pictures of Kim Jong Il lying in state.)


The extreme theatrics of North Koreans’ mourning over the last week has been difficult to interpret. On one hand, they live in an detached nation run by an all-powerful political system that dominates their society and lives. Many people are sure to be feeling rudderless after the loss of their long-time leader, as they did after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung.

On the other hand, there are a lot of cameras. As our Bill Powell put it here yesterday:  “There are reasons other than grief that enter into play that, to put it politely, would not be a factor elsewhere… It’s what happens to that other guy — the guy stupid enough not to be wailing in public — that provides the real motivation.”

Few details are known about the two-day ceremony, but today’s procession seemed to follow the format for the funeral of Kim Il Sung after his death in 1994. That event also featured an over-sized portrait of the deceased leader and a flag-covered coffin, lasting several hours as the procession made its way through the capital, according to AP. (Here are scenes from the 1994 television broadcast.)

Then, too, mourners screamed wildly and wept inconsolably – even more wildly and inconsolably than today, in fact. But even if the public mourning has been taken down a notch, the outpouring of official grief today is being witnessed by people across the world. And with every click on “play,” North Korea propagates the images of itself that it wants to— as impenetrable as ever.

Krista Mahr is a correspondent at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.