Streaming home to mourn

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2011, 12:00am


Many people have predicted the demise of Kim Jong-il will trigger a North Korean collapse and the flight of millions of its people across the border into China.

But a day after the announcement of the death of the 'Dear Leader', the throng was going the other way - as North Koreans in China rushed home to mourn the passing of the man who was the country's absolute ruler for the past 17 years.

Despite the horror stories of famine, gulags and a slavish cult of personality that regularly emerge from the hermit state of 25 million, their grief appeared genuine.

Those unable to return went to the North Korean consulate in Dandong, Liaoning, China's main gateway to North Korea, to pay their respects.

Entertainment venues in the city where North Koreans work were closed or operating without their North Korean staff because of the national mourning.

The spontaneous mourning for a despot might seem surprising. It is natural that people inside the country would shed tears, given that the ruling Kim family is at the centre of their lives. (A tourist boat taking a trip along the North Korean bank of the Yalu River was almost empty, with flags flying at half-mast.)

But there was no faking the emotions on show among those in China no longer subject to the miseries of life in North Korea. They swarmed the customs checkpoint at the border in Dandong, even before it opened yesterday morning. Almost all were carrying a bouquet or basket of chrysanthemums.

Most shops in the city, which is connected to North Korea by a rickety bridge that is the main crossing point for travellers and goods, bear signs in Chinese and Korean. Kim's death is almost the sole topic of conversation among the large number of North Korean travellers in the city and Koreans living there.

'The Dear Leader is dead and we need to hurry back to mourn. I will go to a statue of chairman Kim and lay flowers there,' said a 24-year-old North Korean trade representative, sent by her government to work in Dandong. She watched her luggage and that of three colleagues while they went to buy a box of yellow chrysanthemums at the checkpoint gate. 'I feel so sad. It is like my own father has died,' she said.

Next to her was a tearful woman who had arrived in Dandong on Monday morning and was returning to North Korea. She had a big arrangement of yellow chrysanthemums and seemed irritated when asked how she felt about Kim's death. 'Of course I feel sad. Our chairman is dead. He was like a father to us.'

The small, dark exit hall on the Chinese side of the checkpoint was crowded with anxious-looking North Koreans and Chinese businessmen waiting to find people who could help deliver flowers across the border. A customs officer said there had been a surge in North Koreans leaving China on Monday afternoon.

There were rumours that some trucks that crossed the border on Monday afternoon were asked to turn back, and people were worried that the border would be closed as North Korea seals itself off for 13 days of national mourning.

'Even when the border is closed I am sure flowers will still be entering North Korea, officially or unofficially,' said a florist who was busy cutting and arranging yellow chrysanthemums into bouquets or baskets near the entrance to the customs checkpoint.

'There will be huge demand for flowers. Every florist in town is scrambling to find white chrysanthemums because they were all gone yesterday. I think the whole country's white chrysanthemums are on their way to Dandong.'

She had set up a stall with 4,000 bouquets before 8am. A surge in demand for chrysanthemum bouquets in the afternoon meant she had had to restock later.

Almost every passenger bought a bouquet, she said, and many of them asked for a whole box of flowers.

Blocks away, at the North Korean consulate, darkly dressed, solemn-looking North Koreans who could not make it home swarmed to the small office to pay their final respects. They bowed to a portrait of Kim on the wall in a room full of wreaths, many leaving in tears.

The floral offerings were piled so high that staff had to remove them to make way for mourners.