BEIJING — The scenes of mass grief coming from North Korea — people falling to the ground weeping and cries of anguish amid somber crowds — look forced.
More than theatrical, the mass mourning over the death of dictator Kim Jong Il is being driven by a mix of forces. Loss and fear of an uncertain future — the same emotions that many feel at the death of a loved one — become contagious in crowds. Added to that are the perils of crossing a police state. Self-interest is at work too, as many North Koreans work for the ruling Workers' Party, the military and state companies and institutions.
When Kim's father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, died in 1994, the mourning proved infectious to Kim Yeong-nam, who defected to South Korea in 1998.
No relation to the country's leaders, Kim said fellow university students in Sinuiju city near the Chinese border wailed spontaneously at news of the death. In the days that followed, Kim found the solemn music and eulogies at staged events at public statues made him cry, even though he did not like the country's founder.
The scenes from North Korea ring true for older Chinese who remember the death in 1976 of Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader whose radical policies killed millions and impoverished China but whom they were all taught to worship as a godlike father.
"When the father dies, to the family it's like the main roof beam of the house has collapsed," said Yu Zhixue, an artist and ethnographer, who was 41 at the time. "Under the rule of a single party, the people have no other choice. Whether their life is good or bad, the people have to live under that regime. When he dies, it's like the sky has collapsed."