x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

'People are all crying tears of blood' - Kim Jong-il's funeral

Tens of thousands of North Koreans line snow-covered streets of Pyongyang in what appeared to be a carefully managed state funeral of the late leader.

Kim Jong-un, the 'Great Successor' leads the funeral procession of his father, Kim Jong-un.
Kim Jong-un, the 'Great Successor' leads the funeral procession of his father, Kim Jong-un.

BEIJING // Crying in their grief under grey skies, about 200,000 mourners lined the streets of Pyongyang yesterday for the funeral procession for North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il.

But amid the freezing temperatures and the snow, the focus was not on Kim, who died this month, aged 69. It was on his son and heir, Kim Jong-un – and how strong his control of the nuclear armed nation is.

Kim Jong-un’s prominence during yesterday’s event underlined his position as the “Great Successor”, amid speculation a power struggle could plunge the nuclear-armed state into turmoil.

For part of the 40-kilometre procession, the younger Mr Kim accompanied his father’s American-made Lincoln hearse, laying his left hand on the vehicle and saluting as mourners, most in military dress, wailed before the cameras.

As the three-hour event neared its end, goose-stepping soldiers paraded past the new leader in a demonstration of their newfound loyalty to a man who first appeared on the North Korean political scene little more than a year ago.

“It was designed to project the new leader’s image as the supreme leader in control of the military and other power institutions,” said Paik Hak-soon, a senior fellow at the Seoul-based Sejong Institute think tank and member of a South Korean government committee on inter-Korean relations.

“It’s basically a repetition of what they did for the funeral service of [North Korea’s founding leader] Kim Il-sung in 1994.”

While the funeral procession followed a similar pattern to that of Kim Il-sung, events yesterday had an even more sombre feel as a result of a heavy overnight snowfall that delayed events by several hours.

The only smiling face was that of Kim Jong-il himself, whose vast beaming portrait was carried on one of the limousines accompanying the hearse.

The coffin was draped in the red and yellow flag of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Another vehicle carried a huge wreath, and a trailing fleet of decades-old Mercedes saloons emphasised the economic stagnation that Kim Jong-il’s limited reforms failed to deal with.

In scenes echoing those immediately after the announcement of Kim’s December 17 death, many mourners yesterday appeared unable to cope with their grief.

One distraught group of women shown on television pounded their fists in frustration.

“This was meaningless. The crying people in television, they know they’re being photographed, so there’s no way they cannot cry,” said Jin Park, international coordinator for the Seoul-based campaign organisation Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights.
“Anyone who’s not crying would be punished by death or [incarceration in a] concentration camp.”

Yesterday’s proceedings were broadcast live on North Korean radio and television, and received glowing coverage in China, the secretive communist state’s only real ally, with China Central Television describing the late Kim as a “close friend of the Chinese people”.

While the immediate transfer of power appears to have gone smoothly, analysts will be interested in whether the inexperienced Kim Jong-un can maintain control amid speculation his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, who appeared not to be present at yesterday’s funeral and was this week reportedly in Beijing, could have designs on the leadership.

The key power broker in North Korea, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law Jang Song-thaek, and the army chief of staff, Ri Yong-ho, yesterday walked behind Kim Jong-un in a highly visible show of support.

Key positions the new leader is likely to take up include head of the armed forces, the Central Military Commission and the Workers’ Party of Korea.

The mourning for Kim continues today with a memorial service that will include an artillery salute and a three-minute silence.

The former leader’s final resting place has not been announced. Most likely, his body could join that of his father at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the North Korean founding leader’s official residence-turned-mausoleum and where yesterday’s procession began and ended.

dbardsley@thenational.ae