Guest Post By E. Lee: Kim Jong Il, Passings, And Visiting North Korea

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Editor's Note: As always, a part of this blog's intent is to showcase different views from the APIA community, and I hope this guest post continues that tradition regardless of what your beliefs are and what you think after reading it.

I will always remember the moment when I learned of Kim Jong Il’s death - it felt like time stood still. Sunday evening, December 18, 2011, more than two days after he was proclaimed dead I saw the news on my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

I experienced a mixed bag of thoughts and emotions from sadness to ambivalence as well as concern. I braced myself for the imminent news coverage and the potential bias and ignorance in reporting on the life and death of the leader of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea aka North Korea) and all things North Korean. It makes me wonder when reporters state that we know very little about North Korea yet position themselves as the final authority on the DPRK and then we consume the news as absolute truth.

In my quest to decipher how the media reported on the life and times of Kim Jong Il, I found the following quotes put things into perspective.

Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary General

The UN chief, who is South Korean, "extends his sympathy to the people of [North Korea] at this time of their national mourning," said a statement read to reporters by UN spokesman Farhan Haq.

Ban "reaffirms his commitment to peace and security on the Korean peninsula", Haq said.

"The United Nations system will continue to help the people of North Korea. The Secretary-General is closely following the situation."
Alain Juppe, French Foreign Minister
The death of a man is never something to be cheered, but it is the sad suffering of a people that is important.
I had the opportunity to visit the DPRK this summer (2011) with a peace delegation of overseas Koreans. We spent 11 days in the northern half of our country of origin meeting with leaders of the Women’s and Youth Leagues, visiting factories, collective farms, and museums as well as a church, amusement park, Kim Il Sung University, hospitals and a baby home. This was the ninth peace delegation of overseas Koreans to visit North Korea.

Prior to arriving in Pyongyang, our delegation gathered in Beijing for final preparations. We learned that our first stop when arriving in North Korea would be Mansudae, the large, bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, where we would lay flowers, bow and pay our respects. With this in mind we decided to forgo our comfortable travel clothes for more formal and professional attire. However, when our guide met us at the airport we went straight to the hotel and had dinner instead of visiting Mansudae. It didn’t feel right – almost like I was being disrespectful of the North Korean culture and people. It was getting dark and we asked about visiting the statue of Kim Il Sung. With preparations for the 100th anniversary in 2012 of Kim Il Sung’s birth, there was a fair amount of construction and renovation near Mansudae, so we would not have the opportunity to visit. There was clear disappointment amongst the group.

There is a question as to whether the public mass mourning for Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, is genuine. Grief is a very cultural and sometimes rather individual experience. I’m not sure it’s my place to call into question whether or not someone’s grief, whether displayed publicly or privately, is genuine. In addition, I’m not sure how useful it is to debate something we cannot prove. With the friends and family I have lost, I have expressed my grief to fit the situation: from barely shedding a tear at the funeral to crying myself to sleep for weeks and months after a long-time friend’s sudden death. I also attended a funeral for someone I had never met and when friends asked if it was strange since I didn’t know the deceased, I explained that it was the most natural place to be and one of the most beautiful memorial ceremonies I’d attended. Because of our shared community and history, I felt a connection with this brother I had never met. Grief has caught me off guard on more than one occasion, and if anyone had questioned how I grieved it would have been like pouring salt in my wounds.

Koreans both North and South are nationalistic. The 2002 World Cup co-hosted by South Korea and Japan resulted in spontaneous street cheering. I was in Seoul during the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and experienced the biggest tailgating party ever. Entire streets would shut down and fans would gather by the thousands at 3am in the rain to cheer on the South Korean national football team. Entire photo exhibits are dedicated to the South Korean World Cup teams.

Also, I was living in Seoul in 2007 during the Virginia Tech shootings. While the perpetrator, Seung-Hui Cho, had lived in the US most of his life, South Koreans considered him a South Korean by blood and expressed a sense of public shame and President Roh Moo-hyun expressed condolences. In addition, South Koreans apologized to Americans living in Seoul.

When President Roh Moo-hyun left office, he became a tourist attraction in his hometown with thousands of South Koreans visiting in hope of catching a glimpse of the president. When he died in 2009, thousands of South Koreans publicly mourned him. Was the authenticity of their grief questioned?

While in the DPRK, I witnessed a great reverence and devotion for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. North Koreans wear pins displaying Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader and sometimes both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader. Every room and building display photos of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (except the church we visited). Newspapers should not be folded across photos of either Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. When filming or taking photos of murals or portraits of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, I had to ensure not to cut off any of the existing images. Even saying their names in public is inappropriate and instead we referred to Kim Il Sung as the President and Kim Jong Il as the General. If either Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il had visited a factory or restaurant, this was proudly noted on a plaque at the entrance. The management took great pride in directing our attention to the visits by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

We visited the International Friendship Museum which houses gifts from heads of state, progressive, social justice organizations, religious leaders and several South Korean corporations like Samsung, Hyundai and Daewoo. Billy Graham, the US evangelist, visited the DPRK twice. He noted that he never bowed to anyone but God but that Kim Il Sung was the first person he bowed to.

We also visited Kumsoosan Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, on the anniversary of his death June 7. Visitation to Kumsoosan is by invitation only and is a formal and somber experience. Although the Great Leader had passed in 1994, the mood was that of a funeral. As our bus drove us to the mausoleum, I observed hundreds of North Koreans making their way to the palace to pay their condolences. Whether or not one agrees with the Great Leader’s legacy, it was and is phenomenal to see the impact that one person had and still has on millions of people. We have had the opportunity to witness this now with the passing of Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, as he lay in state at Kumsoosan and preparations were made for the state funeral. If you have time, take another look at the photos of Kim Jong Il in the glass casket. The casket is surrounded by several red flowers, white chrysanthemums and his military medals. The red flowers are Kimjongilia, a flower cultivated by a Japanese botanist for the Dear Leader’s 48th birthday in 1988. Kim Il Sung also has a flower named for him and yes, you guessed it: Kim Il Sung’s flower is the Kimilsungia. Interestingly, neither flower is the national flower of North Korea. The magnolia is the national flower.

Whether one’s perception of Kim Jong Il is that of a dictator or benevolent leader, he was a human being who is survived by his son and other family members, and it is not my place to question anyone’s path of grief.

To my North Korean brothers and sisters, may you find the peace, comfort and hope that you need at this time. May we all work together for peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula as it is peace that I know you desire.

E. Lee is a 1.X generation adopted Korean American who hopes to see a reunified Korea in her lifetime.