A member of the small foreign community in Pyongyang has described surreal scenes of organised mourning, as thousands wail under floodlights and the gaze of state TV cameras after Kim Jong-Il’s death.
The aid worker who lives in the North Korean capital, and spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, said the city is largely operating as normal but lies under the shadow of both genuine distress and stage-managed displays of grief.
The North’s state media have reported that at least five million people have visited statues and portraits around Pyongyang to pay respects to the late leader — more than a fifth of the entire population.
Their wailing, it said, was “rocking heaven and earth” as they grieved for a man with a smile “as broad as sunshine”.
The foreign observer said that while much the city, with its broad, empty avenues and grey buildings was functioning much as usual, the scene at these high-profile locations was quite extraordinary.
“It’s different at the big monuments, like Kim Il-Sung square or the bronze statue. These seem to be the ‘official’ mourning places. There are thousands of people queuing up to bow down in front of a massive portrait of Kim Jong-Il. The events are — as usual — very well arranged,” he said.
“When we visited, it was surreal. Ten thousand North Koreans waiting in queues to pay their respects, coming to the front in groups of 100, bowing down and crying.
“All combined with flood lights, strong icy winds and melancholic music and voices from loudspeakers. Everything, meanwhile, being well documented by about 20 photographers and 10 TV camera teams.”
However by Friday morning, at least one of the monuments to Kim Il-Sung where Pyongyang residents usually gather for special events was completely quiet.
“There were some flowers in front of the huge portrait, and women and children cleaning the place, but no one mourning,” the aid worker said.
Observers say that the “sea of tears” for Kim Jong-Il reflects in part the fear of a cowed population that dare not show its true feelings about a leader under whose 17-year rule so many died.
However, for senior government, party and military officials, as well as the privileged elite of the capital Pyongyang who have benefited from their ties with the regime, the outpouring of emotion may indeed be genuine.
The aid worker said he had expected, on behalf of his organisation, to go to central Pyongyang and lay flowers in the middle of Kim Il-Sung Square, which has been a centrepiece of the mourning events.
But he said that when his team arrived they were welcomed by top officials from the North’s government.
The aid workers were then shown a large wreath prepared by their local staff emblazoned with a ribbon saying in Korean: “The Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong-Il will live eternally” and the name of their agency.
It was one of dozens of floral tributes, all identical, lined up on display.
The aid workers then had to lay down the wreath before an image of Kim Jong-Il, all the while being photographed by official state media.
“It was very awkward. Let’s see what our organisation says about that,” he said.
Against the extravagant displays of mourning, daily life in the rest of the eerily quiet capital appears to be continuing as normal.
“The streets really look the same, the usual number of people and cars. Public transportation is running — or crawling — as usual. Our local staff is working,” the aid worker said.
“The shops and restaurants, at least the ones I have seen, are open as well as the construction yards in the city.
“What’s happening behind the scenes, of course, we don’t know. When talking to people directly, like our local staff or employees in a restaurant, we can see and feel that they are pretty upset.”