ON THE DAY of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s funeral the BBC asked me in to the news studio to comment on the extraordinary scenes broadcast live from Pyongyang, of distraught and weeping crowds lining the streets as the cortège of the Dear Leader passed through the city. Why, in a country with one of the lowest living standards in the world and where people starve to death, should there be such an outpouring of grief for their unprepossessing and misguided leader?
My immediate reaction was to remark on the strange nature of the city of Pyongyang, which I had visited the year before, in 2010. Pyongyang is the ‘city of the elite’: only those with impeccable, politically correct family pedigrees are allowed to live there. If someone’s grandfather had a quarrel with the Great Leader back in the 1950s, it could take three generations for their family to purge itself of this ‘crime’. It can therefore be assumed that the residents of Pyongyang are loyal to the Kim dynasty, now also running to three generations. In return for enthusiastic support, citizens may have access to private food markets or enjoy the privilege of living in apartments that might benefit from electricity twelve hours a day. I went on to remark that such privileges come with obligations, which include exaggerated displays of grief at state funerals...
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