Kim Jong Il’s death on Saturday has sparked a 13-day mourning period in North Korea as thousands converged on Pyongyang to pay their respects to their “Dear Leader.” As AP reported :

Tens of thousands of mourners packed Pyongyang’s snowy main square Wednesday to pay respects to late leader Kim Jong Il as North Korea tightened security in cities and won loyalty pledges from top generals for Kim’s son and anointed heir.

Women held handkerchiefs to their faces as they wept and filed past a huge portrait of a smiling Kim Jong Il hanging on the Grand People’s Study House, in the spot where a photograph of Kim’s father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, usually hangs.

A huge crowd of mourners converged on Kim Il Sung Square with traditional white mourning flowers in hand. The crowd grew throughout the day, even as heavy snow fell, and some mourners took off their jackets to shield mourning wreaths set up in Kim’s honor, just below the spot where he stood last year waving to crowds at the massive military parade where he introduced his successor, Kim Jong Un.

Two medical workers rushed to carry away a woman who had fainted.

“We chose to come here to care for citizens who might faint because of sorrow and mental strain,” Jon Gyong Song, 29, who works as a doctor in a Pyongyang medical center, told The Associated Press. “The flow of mourners hasn’t stopped since Tuesday night.”

While public mourning for Kim Jong Il has swept across North Korea, its neighbors to the south eye developments with concern. As Chico Harlan explained :

South Korea’s government expressed condolences Tuesday to the North Korean people but said it won’t send an official delegation to the Dec. 28 funeral.

Some Koreans said they worry about tension escalating on the peninsula. But those who are older than 30 remember the unexpected death in 1994 of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, a moment when many experts predicted the Stalinist nation’s swift demise. As it turned out, Kim’s son, Kim Jong Il, rose to power and held the country intact through repressive tactics and an all-consuming personality cult.

By the end of the decade, the two Koreas had entered the most peaceful 10-year period of coexistence in their modern history.

“So I would describe the general mood here as subdued,” said John Delury, an assistant professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “Seoul is not in a state of alert.”

For now, North Korea has shown no signs of turmoil. The Associated Press, with a reporter in Pyongyang, described “somber streets” with no discord.

The state-controlled media have spent two days paying homage to Kim Jong Eun, calling him a “great person born of heaven” — a description previously used for his father and grandfather. The Korean Central News Agency said that North Koreans would trust and follow Kim Jong Eun “under whatever circumstances.”

Michael J. Green, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and senior director for Asia on the National Security Council, explained his thoughts about how the Obama administration should handle North Korea after Kim Jong Il:

The North Korean sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan last year may have been staged to give the younger Kim command experience and military credentials before his promotion to four-star general and vice chair of the powerful North Korean National Defense Commission. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were experienced at driving crises like the Cheonan to the edge of war for maximum leverage. None of North Korea’s neighbors are confident, however, that the younger Kim knows how to play the same dangerous game without crossing the line.

And whereas Kim Jong Il had the command authority to determine when and how to play diplomacy vs. provocations with respect to the nuclear program, the same may not be true of Kim Jong Eun and his uncle. They will be under enormous internal pressure to stay on schedule for the nuclear and missile development programs and to respond aggressively to international pressures or sanctions. For all the propaganda behind the younger Kim’s credentials as a “Great General,” the real generals will be tempted to shape and interpret the intent of the inexperienced Kim the same way Japan’s generals divined Emperor Hirohito’s words in the years before Pearl Harbor. Jang Song Taek will hold the real authority but not the aura of the two elder Kims.

If international and domestic turbulence starts pulling apart the cohesion of the leadership structure in Pyongyang, it could bring about the liberation of 23 million oppressed North Koreans and unification with a prosperous and democratic South. Sudden collapse would also bring great peril. Consider how intensely the West worries about the surface-to-air missiles that went missing when Moammar Gaddafi was toppled in Libya. In North Korea, we would have to worry about nuclear weapons’ technology, fissile material, massive chemical and biological arsenals and more than a million men under arms — all in a regime with close ties to criminal syndicates around the world.

The Obama administration therefore has reasons for focusing on stability in its approach to Pyongyang, but that should not get in the way of necessary planning and coordination with our allies and other powers in the region on how we would respond to the regime’s demise. At this point, the downside risks associated with mismanagement of the collapse of the North and unification of the peninsula outweigh any risk that intensified preparations might pose to our diplomatic outreach to the North.

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