Thousands of North Koreans lined the wide snow-covered streets of Pyongyang on Wednesday as the reclusive “Hermit Kingdom” began two days of funeral services for the late “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il.
State television showed tens of thousands gathering under heavy snowfall and in freezing conditions as Kim's hearse inched its way through the North Korean capital. Kim died of a heart attack on December 17, state media reported last Monday.
Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, who has been since designated “the Great Successor” by the ruling Korean Workers' Party (KWP), led the funeral procession, underscoring his authority as the North's next ruler.
He walked beside his father's hearse with his head lowered, with one arm in salute.
Behind him was his father's powerful brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek, seen by many analysts as a key player among a small circle of military elites expected to wield considerable influence alongside Mr. Kim Jong-un.
The younger Kim, only in his late twenties and politically inexperienced, is expected to rule with far less authority than his father. Mr. Jang was accompanied by the military chief, Ri Yong-ho, and the Minister of the People's Armed Forces, Kim Yong-chun.
“It shows they will be core powers in North Korea,” Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University in South Korea, told the Associated Press. “Particularly, Jang Song-taek and Ri Yong-ho will be key to Kim Jong-un's leadership.”
Kim's death has stirred concerns among the North's neighbours, who fear that an uncertain new leadership could look to assert its strength. China, the North's closest ally and biggest source of financial aid, is particularly afraid of economic instability amid reports of food shortages, and is expected to boost support to its eastern neighbour as the new regime assumes control.
Chinese officials had pressed Kim Jong-il, during his recent visits to China, to undertake much-needed economic reforms to revive a flailing economy, but Chinese analysts say it remains unclear whether the young Kim and a new leadership, with their focus on maintaining domestic stability, will consider opening up.
For now though, Pyongyang's focus is on mourning, with memorial services expected to go on until Thursday.
Official broadcasts on Wednesday showed hundreds of ordinary citizens wailing and screaming in grief, women and men waving their arms and clutching their chests. The scenes drove home the strength of the personality cult Kim Jong-il had built around himself.
For outside observers, relying on state propaganda as the only window into the cut-off country, the depth of the grief remained unclear, even if it appeared carefully orchestrated.
The mourners, even in their grief, wept in groups and in line, with those standing in front of the crowd appearing, for some reason, more distraught than the others lined up behind them, away from the cameras.