April 16, 2024
Analysis

Misinterpreting North Korea’s gestures of passion

Grand spontaneous displays show sincerity, not fanaticism, in the North's culture

In 2013, some widely published photographs of North Korean soldiers shocked unprepared viewers around the world. In them, the soldiers could be seen excitedly jumping into the cold waters of the Yellow Sea in full uniform to see off the boat of Kim Jong Un after his visit to the islands on which they were stationed. On first glance, many viewers interpreted this scene as a bizarre expression of fanatical devotion by North Koreans to their leader.

However, if we consider this scene in its broader cultural context, it looks significantly less outrageous. For comparison, while the notorious mass chest beatings and loud cries at mourning sessions for Kim Jong Il might have been a pretense on the part of most participants, these theatrical expressions are still an important part of North Korea’s grief culture. In a similar way, it seems that jumping into the water to see the leader off demonstrates not so much the peculiarities of North Korea’s cult of personality, but rather points to a peculiar part of North Korean cultural code that is not confined merely to the cult of personality.

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