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Despair over Kim Jong Il: Real grief or forced?

KCNA / EPA

News of the North Korean leader's death sparks tears from his followers and concerns around the world as power is handed over to his successor.

The images of North Koreans frantically weeping and wailing during Wednesday's funeral procession for Kim Jong Il may seem forced and fabricated to Americans who viewed the former leader as a dangerous despot.

But experts say that the scenes we’re seeing on TV aren’t necesarily out of the ordinary or over the top for North Koreans in grief. And they may even be the honest expressions of a nation not knowing how to go on once their cult-like leader dies.

“This is a society that is organized around a mass cult-like devotion to the leader,” said Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the U.S. China Institute at the University of Southern California and author of “Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis.” “When you have the death of a figure that you spent your whole life worshipping you’re going to feel fear and uncertainty and anxiety about what will happen next.”

You can get a window on the people’s mind-set by listening to the words of the song that was often heard in the streets of North Korea and always played when Kim Jong-Il appeared in public, said Chinoy.

“It was called the ‘Song of General Kim Jong Il,” Chinoy said. “It’s a really catchy tune and you would hear it like 10 times a day. When he appeared in public, they would always play the lines: ‘Without you there is no country. Without you there is no us.’

“If that’s what you’ve been taught – or brainwashed – to believe your whole life and suddenly you are without that leader, you’re going to think, ‘What are we going to do now?’”

But it’s also possible some may be feigning distress since it’s expected – and they may fear retribution if they don’t, some say.

When Kim Il Sung, the father of Kim Jong Il, died in 1994, some were punished for not seeming grief stricken enough, defectors from North Korea told Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times.

Still, many mourning Kim Jong Il are likely showing the standard signs of grief in Korea, Chinoy said.

“If you’ve ever been to a traditional Korean funeral in South Korea, you’d have seen tremendous weeping and wailing,” Chinoy said. “They are an emotional people who wear their emotions on their sleeves.”

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