Millions flock to mourn North Korean strongman
North Korea said on Wednesday that millions of grief-stricken people had turned out to mourn “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il, whose death has left the world scrambling for information about his young successor.
The North’s propaganda machine has rolled into action to secure the legacy of the late dictator and build up the same personality cult for his youngest son Jong-Un, who is set to inherit the world’s last communist dynasty.
State television showed images of mourners weeping before portraits of the man who presided over a famine that killed hundreds of thousands of his people, their bodies shaking with seemingly unbearable grief.
“These places turned into a veritable sea of mourners who bitterly wept, looking up to portraits of smiling Kim Jong-Il,” the North’s official news agency reported.
It said at least 5-million people visited statues and portraits around the capital Pyongyang to pay respects to the late leader, whose body lies in state in a glass coffin following his sudden death on Saturday at the age of 69.
The figure represents more than a fifth of the entire North Korean population.
On Tuesday a sombre Kim Jong-Un was shown viewing the corpse along with other high officials, as an honour guard watched over the late Kim at Pyongyang’s Kumsusan Memorial Palace.
It was a rare glimpse of the man who is poised to take the helm of the nuclear-armed nation while still in his late twenties.
North Korea’s neighbours and the US, which is treaty-bound to defend South Korea and Japan, are watching the transition warily.
Victor Cha, who was a top adviser on Korea to former US president George W Bush, said virtually nothing was known about Kim Jong-Un and any US effort to reach out to him came with the risk of undermining him.
“It’s like a fishbowl. We’re all kind of looking in and we’re trying to figure out how things are happening,” he said.
World powers appear to have been in the dark for two days until a tearful television presenter announced on Monday that Kim had suffered a fatal heart attack while travelling on one of his field tours.
The North has urged the people and military to unite behind Kim Jong-Un, describing him as the “great successor”.
Analysts expect little upheaval—at least for now—since regime members at present have a vested interest in preserving the status quo.
South Korean intelligence chiefs expect a caretaker leadership to handle pressing issues until the successor assumes full control, Yonhap news agency said, citing a report presented to a closed-door session of Parliament.
Seoul’s spy agency said the interim leadership would be led by a ruling party commission controlled by Kim Jong-Un.
The senior Kim had reportedly been grooming his youngest son for the succession since suffering a stroke in August 2008. In September last year Jong-Un was appointed a four-star general and given senior party posts.
South Korea, still technically at war with the North, announced it would allow private groups to send condolence messages across the border in another conciliatory gesture to its neighbour.
The move came a day after officials scrapped a plan to display Christmas lights near their shared border, a proposal which had infuriated Pyongyang.
Seoul resumed the display last December, ending a suspension of several years, after a shelling attack by the North on a border island killed four South Koreans the previous month.
South Korea also accuses its neighbour of torpedoing a warship in March 2010 with the loss of 46 lives.
The South sent its sympathies on Tuesday to the North Korean people but said that it would not send an official mourning delegation to Pyongyang, which has in any case announced that it would not host foreign representatives.
Defectors who fled Kim’s harsh rule for South Korea planned to use balloons to float 200 000 leaflets denouncing the late leader across the border later on Wednesday.
The North, which tightly controls news from outside, has in the past threatened to fire across the heavily fortified border to stop such launches.
“Kim’s death is such a joy and source of hope for all compatriots in the South and the North who value freedom and human rights,” prominent defector Park Sang-Hak said.
“This is a great opportunity to enlighten people in the North.”
Hopes for progress
The US has signalled to North Korea’s new leaders it hopes for progress on the nuclear issue and has pushed ahead with discussions on resuming food aid.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who on Monday urged Pyongyang to embrace “the path of peace”, has set out US parameters for what would be necessary for improved relations, state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said.
“This was intended to be a signal of our expectations and hopes for the new regime,” Nuland said.
“We want to see the new leadership of the DPRK [North Korea] take their country in the direction of denuclearisation, in the direction of compliance with their international obligations and commitments.”
She said Washington was also looking for signs that Pyongyang would seek improved relations with its neighbours, particularly South Korea, and open the door to promoting the rights of its people.
Six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia broke down in 2008 and UN inspectors were expelled from North Korea in 2009.
Nuland said Clinton had spoken with both Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and that all agreed on the need for “peace, stability and calm” on the Korean peninsula.
Ready to keep working
US officials said that with North Korea in mourning, they do not expect immediate progress but hope the new leadership may eventually take steps to address the nuclear issue and provide monitoring guarantees that could allow the resumption of food aid suspended since 2008.
“Given the mourning period frankly we don’t think we’ll be able to have much more clarity and resolve these issues before the new year. But obviously we stand ready to keep working on this,” Nuland said.
In a sign that some discussions were continuing, she said US officials had been in touch with their North Korean counterparts following Kim’s death over the weekend to discuss technical aspects of the food aid question.
US and North Korean officials met in the Chinese capital last week to discuss food aid but the American officials described the talks as inconclusive.
Washington, backed by its close ally South Korea, has said it still has questions over both North Korea’s need for food aid and their ability to monitor aid shipments to ensure they reach the neediest.
The UN has said poor harvests and bad weather have exacerbated North Korea’s chronic food shortages, leaving millions in need of food assistance.
Nuland said the contact occurred on Monday through what is known as “the New York channel”—North Korea’s mission to the UN—but she was unable to say whether it involved any political discussion of the ramifications of Kim’s death.
“I can’t speak to whether it was broader but it was at a technical level and it was designed to make clear that we still had questions with regard to the nutritional assistance,” Nuland told reporters.—AFP-Reuters