The realist in me is resigned to the fact that little will change for North Korea’s long-suffering citizens in the wake of Dear Leader’s demise. But upon learning the news late last night, I immediately thought of a strangely optimistc scene from Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, one set in the immediate aftermath of Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994. It involves a university student named Jun-sang, who always considered himself an ardent believer in North Korea’s greatness. But then something unexpected happened one July day in Pyongyang:
In the courtyard, nearly three thousand students and faculty were lined up in formation, ranked by their year, major, and dormitory affiliation. The sun beat down with full force, and they were sweating in their short-sleeved summer uniforms. At noon a disembodied female voice, tremulous and sorrowful, came booming through loudspeakers. The loudspeakers were old and produced scratchy sounds that Jun-sang could barely understand, but he picked up a few words—”passed away” and “illness”—and he grasped the meaning of it all from the murmur going through the crowd. There were gasps and moans. One student collapsed in a heap. Nobody knew quite what to do. So one by one each of the three thousand students sat down on the hot pavement, heads in hands.
Jun-sang sat down, too, unsure of what else to do. Keeping his head down so nobody could read the confusion on his face, he listened to the rhythm of the sobbing around him. He stole glances at his grief-stricken classmates. He found it curious that for once he wasn’t the one crying. To his great embarrassment, he often felt tears welling in his eyes at the end of movies or novels, which provoked no end of teasing by his younger brother, as well as criticism from his father, who always told him he was “soft like a girl.” He rubbed his eyes, just to make sure. They were dry. He wasn’t crying. What was wrong with him? Why wasn’t he sad that Kim Il-sung was dead? Didn’t he love Kim Il-sung?
Here’s to hoping that more than a few young North Koreans are experiencing similarly jarring epiphanies today.