Kim Jong Il mourned by tens of thousands in North Korean as heir Kim Jong Eun leads funeral procession

December 28, 2011

SEOUL — With snow blanketing the wide streets of its gray capital and wailing mourners lining the sidewalks, North Korea staged an extravagant farewell Wednesday to its autocratic ruler of 17 years, Kim Jong Il.

The funeral for the man known as North Korea’s “Dear Leader” marked a ceremonial junction in the nuclear-armed state’s second father-to-son power transfer, as state media assured the nation that its next leader, Kim Jong Eun, was every bit as worthy as his predecessor.

The younger Kim, thought to be in his late 20s, led the funeral procession, walking beside the black hearse, draped in a red revolutionary flag, that held his father’s body. Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, an apparent caretaker in the power transfer, walked several steps behind with other Workers’ Party and military officials.

State television, broadcasting to the outside world, showed hours of the choreographed imagery that underpins the Kim family personality cult. The funeral motorcade was led by a black sedan with a massive portrait of a smiling Kim Jong Il affixed to its roof. The hearse followed close behind, flanked by several jeeps and trailed by a fleet of black Mercedes-Benzes and a formation of goose-
stepping, flag-bearing soldiers.

The procession traveled a 25-mile loop around Pyongyang, the capital, passing Kim Il Sung Plaza, Kim Il Sung Stadium and North Korea’s Arch of Triumph, the state-run news agency reported. At times, snow fell so heavily that the black-clad mourners could scarcely see the motorcade until it materialized in front of them, with Kim Jong Il’s portrait emerging from the whiteness.

Based on television footage, tens of thousands of people, at least, lined the streets. In the open plaza, they formed perfect rows. TV close-ups showed scenes of hysterical grief, with soldiers pulling at one another in apparent agony and women dropping to their knees. One middle-age man, interviewed by the state news agency, could barely manage to speak.

The displays typified North Korea’s unusual brand of political theater, in which it is often difficult to tell the staged from the real. At times, footage was clearly on a loop, repeating shots of the motorcade and the grieving crowds. But the broadcast was carried “live,” North Korea said.

“Kim Jong Il’s heart has stopped,” a narrator said, “but his generous image will forever stay in people’s hearts.”

Kim Jong Eun was shown only at the beginning and end of the three-hour broadcast, as the hearse left from and returned to a memorial palace where the Dear Leader’s body had lain in state.

North Korean media have already declared Kim Jong Il’s youngest son the Great Successor, and the state’s propaganda arm has worked since the elder Kim’s death to assure a smooth transfer of power.

On Thursday, at a memorial for Kim Jong Il, the successor, head bowed, looked on from a balcony. The ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, told the crowd in the main plaza that Kim Jong Eun had inherited his father’s “ideology, character and revolutionary” cause.

In an editorial Wednesday, the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper described Kim Jong Eun as the “supreme leader of our party and people.” He will take “warm care of the people left by Kim Jong Il,” the editorial said.

The funeral was watched closely for hints about North Korea’s future leadership, as the country has often used massive ceremonies to show the order of its hierarchy. But the procession offered no major surprises, analysts in Seoul said.

In addition to Kim Jong Eun, a coterie of older officials walked beside the hearse, including Central Military Committee Vice Chairman Ri Yong Ho, Gen. Kim Jong Gak and Secretariat members Kim Ki Nam and Choe Thae Bok. The balance between military and party leaders suggests, at least tentatively, that Kim Jong Eun will try to maintain a wide base of support within the military, the institution that his father prized above all else.

Foreign analysts, though, said they have almost no understanding of Kim Jong Eun’s leadership style and little sense of whether he will be able to consolidate power in this food-strapped nation.

Kim was unofficially designated as successor only two years ago, South Korea’s government says. At best, he received a rushed and, ultimately, truncated education from his father. With Kim Jong Il’s sudden death Dec. 17, Kim Jong Eun inherited the position years before he was ready, without a chance to build and solidify loyalties among older officials.

Many experts in Seoul and Washington said Kim Jong Eun’s initial accession has shown no signs of instability. “The North Korean authorities seem to have prepared better than expected for the initial events following Kim Jong Il’s death,” said Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But you can’t help but feel that the funeral may be the last event that would be easy to script.”

After the final memorial service Thursday, Kim Jong Il’s body will be embalmed by a team of Russian specialists, Seoul’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported. The preserved body will probably be housed in the same memorial palace that contains the remains of his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.

For the funeral, Pyongyang was closed to foreign delegations, with a few exceptions. The Rev. Hyung Jin Moon, a U.S. citizen and president of the Unification Church, arrived in North Korea on Saturday and planned to attend the funeral, the church said. A Japanese magician, Tenko Hikita, who performed privately for Kim Jong Il, was asked to attend, but she declined.

No South Koreans attended the funeral, but two of Seoul’s most prominent women — former first lady Lee Hee Ho and Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong Eun — visited Pyongyang earlier this week, meeting for 10 minutes with Kim Jong Eun and expressing their condolences.

In its account of Wednesday’s funeral, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency focused mostly on the country’s citizens, describing a “veritable sea of wailing” mourners missing the “kind-hearted father of the nation.

“We will accomplish the cause of building a thriving socialist nation,” the article said, “remaining loyal to the leadership of Kim Jong Eun.”

Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.
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