A Moment of Silence for Kim Jong-il

The World

A vast crowd of North Koreans in Pyongyang fell silent at noon Thursday.

Their former leader, Kim Jong-il, died 10 days ago. And Thursday, his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, led a memorial service.

Eulogies were read out in front of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians as they stood, heads bowed, in the central square.

And then, there was the silence.

Silence can be a powerful thing. There’s the pause in a speech that adds extra weight. The moment of silence before a performance begins. Or, sometimes, a performance itself.

In composer John Cage’s “4 minutes, 33 seconds,” a full BBC orchestra remains silent onstage, formally dressed, instruments poised. This audience is first game, then restless. Tension builds.

Finally, the first “movement” ends, and the conductor turns the page and wipes his brow.

The audience laughs, some cough, and there’s palpable release, even after just a couple of minutes of shared total silence.

Thursday, North Koreans shared their own silence — kind of.

Horns blared in the country’s capital, marking the three minutes North Koreans were to stand silent, shoulder to shoulder in public squares, bowing to mourn the passing of the man they called Dear Leader.

The ceremony was also meant to turn a page, as with a speech by a top general.

“But now we stand by Kim Jung-un. Kim Jong-un is a great leader. We will serve Kim Jong-un as the highest official. And under his leadership, we will complete this nation,” the general said.

The head of North Korea’s legislature also said, “Respected Comrade Kim Jong-un is our party, military and country’s Supreme Leader, who inherits our great comrade Kim Jong-il’s ideology, leadership, character, virtues, grit and courage. ”

It’s hard to know whether all those standing silent think that’s a good thing. Criticism of the Kim family is silenced in North Korea, sometimes by imprisonment, sometimes by death. Most don’t dare, and keep silent.

In China, the country’s leaders wish more Chinese would do the same. Dozens of activists and civil rights lawyers have been imprisoned and silenced this year. Two writers Chen Wei and Chen Xi, received prison sentences of a decade or so each last week — for writing articles criticizing the government and calling for political reform.

And Thursday, lawyer Ni Yulan and her husband Dong Jiqin went on trial for helping victims of government-backed land grabs. They could face their own imposed silence.

Silence can be powerful. It can be eloquent, or oppressive. It can open up new spaces for the imagination, or shut them down. Only those experiencing a silence know which it is for them. Only once the silence ends, can they say.

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