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Why did North Koreans cry?

24th January 2012

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From the scenes of distraught North Koreans sobbing at the news of the death of Kim Jong-il came the media reports questioning whether the grief was orchestrated, for it could not possibly be genuine emotion, in their understanding, for how could such emotion be felt for an abhorrent dictator?

Furthermore, by using terminology such as ‘brainwashed’ to describe the mind-set of North Koreans it to me seems disrespectful by suggesting that their dire situation is due to some sort of mental fallibility on their part, whereas we of course would never be so duped in our democracies!

The truth of the matter is that the reverence in which North Koreans hold their leader is a product of the culture in Asia which promotes the family and the group above the individual. We cannot look at the situation through westernised lenses where the stress is truly upon the individual and their rights, to do so would be ethnocentric and inaccurate.

I must stress that this is in no way an endorsement of the regime in North Korea which clearly infringes so many of the human rights of its people. But the first step to combating anything is to understand it, and moreover it needs to be made clear that the individuals are in no way to blame for the situation. It means nothing to say that we would never hold a leader in such blind reverence; we are all the product of our cultures.

The basic distinction to understand is while western societies have developed around the notion of the rights of the individual, Asian societies have been structured around duties, and the importance of the family or group above the individual. When part of one of these cultures it can be difficult to comprehend the other, so the west’s individualism might be mistaken as selfishness in Asia, whereas the west may view the importance of the group in Asia as subservient in some way.

And this is what can explain the situation in North Korea where there is such devotion to their leader. There the Marxist collectivism espoused by the state and this indigenous culture have blended. The leadership have taken advantage of this by creating the cult of personality around each leader in a paternal image. Thereby the state is an extension of the family, with Kim Jong-un now at the head of it. Just as the father in a family unit expects obedience, the leader of the nation does.

The concepts of nation and state are understood by analogy to a family in North Korea, not as abstract entities as we would understand it. And so the leader comes to epitomise the state, it becomes the duty of all of its citizens, as members of this state-family to obey and to put the state/family first.

It is easy to think that Europeans would never put up with such oppression, especially in the context of our revolutionary history. But since our culture determines us to a large extent, the excessive demands of devotion required from North Koreans to satiate the state (which they seem to tolerate) are understandable from the context of the family centric culture. Of course the oppressive mechanism of the state with its prison camps and secret police are a huge factorin the submission of the people, let us not understate that.

But as Milgram’s experiment demonstrated even westerners are susceptible to obey someone in a position of authority, so we should not judge the North Korean people.  Instead we should seek to understand the situation, and this I think is a very important consideration when it comes to issues of world politics. How can we attempt to fight against what we cannot understand?  This also brings in wider questions about the applicability of the standards the west wants the world to adhere to. Due regard must be given to cultural differences such as those noted above when expecting states to conform to human rights standards in order to give them universal legitimacy. South Korea’s shaky transition to democracy shows just this.

For further reading on this subject, I highly recommend these four books:

Nothing to Envy – Barbara Demick

International Human Rights – Jack Donnelly

Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice – Jack Donnelly

Human Rights in East Asia – James Hsiung

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