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.
The North reported that Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack Dec. 17. He left behind a country gripped by chronic food shortages but armed with nuclear weapons and a successor in his 20s whose control on military generals and party secretaries remains a subject of intense speculation among outside analysts.
The funeral, and the mourning, appeared to have been meticulously choreographed by the government to strengthen the cult of personality underpinning the Kim family's rule. State television and radio announcers exhorted North Koreans to uphold the family with their lives. They even attributed the heavy snow fall ahead of the funeral to the "heaven's grief" over Kim Jong Il's death.
During his procession with the hearse, Kim Jong Un was followed by Kim Ki Nam and Choe Tae Bok, both octogenarian members of the Politburo. Choe is the party secretary in charge of external relations. Walking on the other side of the hearse were military generals led by Ri, followed by Kim Yong Chun, the defense minister, and Kim Jong Gak, a four-star general and important political officer at the military.
The list appeared to reflect the government's emphasis on an orderly transition. Dubbing Kim Jong Un the "great successor," North Korea's state-run media have stressed in the past week that he would inherit his father's songun, or "military-first," policy.
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul, said the party meetings in the coming months would probably elevate a new generation of future leaders in their 30s and 40s, mostly children of current members of the elite in their 70s and 80s.
"Largely unknown, these are people who really wield influence behind the old men," he said.
In the past week, the regime has moved briskly to rally the agencies of power behind Kim. When he visited his father at the Kumsusan mausoleum for the fifth time Tuesday, the North Korean media referred to him as the "sagacious leader of our party, state and military."
On Wednesday, Rodong Sinmun, the main newspaper of the Workers' Party, called the North's nuclear weapons and long-range missile technology among the biggest achievements of Kim Jong Il.
"Thanks to these legacies, we do not worry about the destiny of ourselves and posterity at this time of national mourning," it said.
Meanwhile, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that a Defense Ministry spokesman was denying reports that the Chinese army had entered North Korea "as requested by the country to help maintain its stability."Comment on this story
In a closed-door briefing at parliament in Seoul, South Korea's National Intelligence Service noted that Jang, Kim's uncle, might even expand his influence into the military to ensure a smooth transition, according to lawmakers who attended the briefing. Saturday, Jang appeared in a military uniform for the first time on state television, wearing a general's insignia.
The spy agency also noted a sense of vulnerability in the North Koreans' hurry to thrust the son into the spotlight. Long before his father died in 1994, Kim Jong Il had already seized power, including the leadership of the military. Unlike his son, Kim Jong Un, he was in no hurry to assume his father's top titles like "great leader."
The cohesion of the Pyongyang government and of North Korean society in general has suffered serious blows since a famine killed at least tens of thousands of people in the 1990s. The famine has weakened the state's control on the people's movement, and an influx of information from China has become one of the biggest threats to the regime's command of allegiance from the people.
Defectors from North Korea living in the South released 10 giant balloons carrying 200,000 leaflets urging North Koreans to "rise up" against the government.