Spare a thought for Kim Jong-Un. North Korea’s third-generation dictator — larger than life to his people, the butt of jokes and an object of fear in much of the world — was forced to shed a tear. Last week, carefully edited footage of a military parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of North Korea’s ruling party (on October 10), featuring what appeared to be among the largest contemporary ballistic missiles, made global headlines. The talking point, though, isn’t the volatile nation’s big stick but the hitherto unseen emotional Kim.
This year has been tough on North Koreans. In addition to the hardships caused by COVID-19, the country has been devastated by typhoons and economic sanctions have reportedly driven many to poverty and destitution. Kim’s mea culpa — the tears streaming down his face accompanied an apology for not fulfilling the promise to take care of his people — may appear to be unexpected. But it is of a piece with strategies employed by “strong leaders” — the vulnerability of the paternal figure, the guard at the gate, who wields the threat of force both to protect his people and to discipline them. Unlike his father and predecessor, Kim Jong-Il, Kim often does public events — interacting with workers, soldiers, teachers and party loyalists. Clearly, he sees himself as a “dictator of the people”.
Political leaders often use lessons from film and television to help them win over people. In melodramas and reality shows, the easiest way to make an otherwise macho, unlikeable character more sympathetic is to either have them go through a trauma (usually for women) or get them to cry (mostly for men). Since the only drama available on North Korean media is the Kim show, the old trick looks new. But remember, if the tears don’t work, there’s always a ballistic missile.
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