Funeral signals continuity in North Korean power

By Choe Sang-Hun

New York Times News Service

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 28 2011 10:00 p.m. MST

Kim Jong Un, foreground, salutes as he walks next to the hearse of his father, Kim Jong Il.

Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong Un, the designated dynastic heir to power in North Korea, walked alongside the hearse of his deceased father, Kim Jong Il, through snow-covered downtown Pyongyang on Wednesday, leading a state funeral that provided early glimpses of who is serving as guardians of the young untested leader.

The extensive funeral was closely watched for signs of shifts in power in the country's enigmatic leadership. Kim's two elder brothers, Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chol, were nowhere to be seen.

Leading the funeral alongside and behind Kim Jong Un were a familiar mix of military generals and party secretaries, including elderly stalwarts from the days of Kim Jong Il and his father, the North's founding president, Kim Il Sung, and younger officials who expanded their influence while playing crucial roles in grooming the son as successor under the father's tutelage.

Most prominent were the two men whose names seldom fail to pop up when North Korea watchers tried to dissect the palace intrigues in the capital, Pyongyang: Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un's uncle and vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, and Ri Yong Ho, head of the North Korean military's general staff.

Jang's influence as power broker expanded after Kim Jong Il, his brother-in-law, suffered a stroke in 2008. He appeared committed to extending the Kim family's rule to the third generation, but his own ambition remains shrouded in mystery.

Ri, a relatively unknown figure during most of Kim Jong Il's rule, rose to prominence in the past two years as the late leader began grooming his son as heir. He is now considered an important backer of Kim Jong Un in the Korean People's Army, whose support is key to his consolidation of power.

"If anything, the funeral indicates that Jang Song Thaek and Ri Yong Ho will be the closest aides to Kim Jong Un," said Yoo Ho Yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University.

Less certain was whether and how a potential power game might play out among these aging generals and party secretaries more than twice Kim Jong Un's age. He could become either a forceful leader or a figurehead, depending on whether he can replicate the skills of his father, who kept the elites in line both by stocking their households with foreign luxury goods and by dispatching anyone who fell out of favor to labor camps, analysts said.

On the surface, the funeral appeared to proceed with a totalitarian choreography.

Kim Jong Un walked with one hand on the hearse and the other raised in salute. Neat rows of soldiers in olive-green uniforms stood, hats off and bowing, in front of the Kumsusan mausoleum, where Kim Jong Il's body had been lying in state since his death was announced Dec. 19.

When the funeral motorcade stopped before them at the start of a 25-mile procession through Pyongyang, they gave a last salute and a military band played the national anthem. Kim Jong Un and other top officials did not walk the entire route; from inside their limousines, they watched crowds of citizens and soldiers wailing along the boulevards under a cold, gray sky.

Soldiers appeared to lead the outpouring of grief. They beat their chests in tears, footage broadcast on state television showed. They flailed their hands, stomped their feet and shouted "Father, Father," as the limousine carrying a gigantic portrait of a smiling Kim Jong Il on the roof crawled past the crowds, followed by the hearse bearing his coffin draped with a red flag. A phalanx of soldiers carrying various party and military flags followed.

In one scene, soldiers rushed to keep mourners from spilling onto the road. But even among the crowds, the intensity of grief — thus loyalty to the regime — seemed to vary; those standing farther from the road seemed less emotional.

The funeral lasted for three hours. A national memorial service will take place at noon today, state media said.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere