The body of North Korea’s long-time ruler Kim Jong-il was laid out in a glass coffin on Tuesday as weeping mourners filled public plazas and state media fed a budding personality cult around his third son, hailing him as “born of heaven.”
North Korea’s official television showed still photos of Kim in the coffin surrounded by wreaths, his body covered with a red blanket and his head on a white pillow. A giant red curtain covered a wall behind Kim.
Kim Jong-un Kim’s third son and successor visited the coffin along with top military and Workers’ Party officials and held a “solemn ceremony” as the country mourned, state TV said.
Kim died of a massive heart attack caused by overwork and stress, according to the North’s media. He was 69 though some experts question the official accounts of his birth date and location.
Although there were no signs of unrest or discord in Pyongyang’s somber streets, Kim’s death and the possibility of a power struggle in a country armed with nuclear weapons and known for its secrecy and unpredictability have heightened tensions in the region.
With the country in an 11-day period of official mourning, flags were flown at half-staff at all military units, factories, businesses, farms and public buildings. The streets of Pyongyang were quiet, but throngs of people gathered at landmarks honouring Kim, footage from Associated Press Television News in Pyongyang showed.
Kim’s body was in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, a mausoleum where the embalmed body of his father national founder Kim Il-sung has been on display in a glass sarcophagus since his death in 1994.
The state funeral is to be held there on December 28.
“Our General (Kim Jong Il) is our people’s benevolent father,” said Ri Ho Il, a lecturer at the Korean Revolutionary History Museum. “He defended our people’s happiness, carrying on his forced march both night and day.”
North Korean officials say they will not invite foreign delegations and will allow no entertainment during the mourning period.
North Korean state media have given clear indications that Mr. Kim Jong-un will succeed him. Since Kim’s death they have stepped up their lavish praise of the son, indicating an effort to strengthen a cult of personality around him similar to that of his father and much more strongly of Kim Il-sung.
The Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday described Mr. Kim Jong-un as a “a great person born of heaven,” a propaganda term only his father Kim Jong-il and his grandfather Kim Il-sung had enjoyed. The Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, added in an editorial that Mr. Kim Jong-un is “the spiritual pillar and the lighthouse of hope” for the military and the people.
It described the twentysomething Mr. Kim Jong-un as “born of Mount Paektu,” one of Korea’s most cherished sites and Kim Jong-il’s official birthplace. On Monday, the North said in a dispatch that the people and the military “have pledged to uphold the leadership of comrade Kim Jong-un” and called him a “great successor” of the country’s revolutionary philosophy of juche, or self reliance.
Whether the transition would be a smooth one remained an open question, however.
South Korea’s military has been put on high alert, and experts warned that the next few days could be a crucial turning point for the North, which though impoverished by economic mismanagement and repeated famine, has a relatively well-supported, 1.2 million-strong armed forces.
“The situation could become extremely volatile. What the North Korean military does in the next 24—48 hours will be decisive,” said Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has made several high-profile visits to North Korea.
Kim was in power for 17 years after the death of his father, the charismatic founder of the North Korean nation.
His death could set back efforts by the United States and others to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. It also comes at a sensitive time for North Korea, which is preparing for next year’s 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung.
Concerns are high that Mr. Kim Jong-un being young and largely untested may feel he needs to prove himself by precipitating a crisis or displaying his swagger on the international stage.
North Korea conducted at least one short-range missile test on Monday, a South Korean official said. But South Korea’s military sees the firing as part of a scheduled routine drill, instead of a provocation, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of a policy that bans commenting on intelligence matters.
Some analysts, however, said Kim’s death was unlikely to plunge the country into chaos because it already was preparing for a transition. Kim Jongil indicated a year ago that Kim Jong-un would be his successor, putting him in high-ranking posts.
South Korea’s President urged his people to remain calm while his Cabinet and the Parliament convened emergency meetings on Tuesday.
The Defence Ministry said the South Korean military and the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea had bolstered reconnaissance and were sharing intelligence on North Korea.
The White House said in a statement that it is closely monitoring reports of Kim’s death. The Obama administration may postpone decisions on re-engaging the North in nuclear talks and providing it with food aid, U.S. officials said.
The administration had been expected to decide on both issues this week, possibly as early as Monday, but the officials said Kim’s death would likely delay the process.