Funeral of North Korean leader to yield clues on future direction

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The funeral of Kim Jong-il will be watched closely for clues to who will gain power and who will fall out of favour under the next leader, his son Kim Jong-un.

However, the state ceremonies today and tomorrow are also likely to bear the hallmarks of Kim Jong-il’s rule, including more of a military presence for the man who elevated the armed forces as part of his “songun,” or “military first”, policy.

Kim, who has been lying in state since he died on December 17, celebrated major occasions with lavish, meticulously choreographed parades designed to show off the nation’s military might, such as the October 2010 display when he introduced his son and anointed successor to the world.

“A display of weapons may also be a way to demonstrate that the military remains loyal to the succession process,” said Ahn Chan-il of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in South Korea. “There may even be a small-scale military parade involving aeroplanes.”

Like his father was when former leader Kim il-sung died in 1994, Kim Jong-un has been stoic in a dark blue Mao-style suit in mourning period appearances – but so far without the black armband that Kim Jong-il wore at the funeral to mark him as head mourner.

He has also shown a flair for mixing politics with public occasion. By meeting a delegation of South Korean mourners led by a former first lady, the leadership is sending a clear message to Seoul that it is open to improving relations after years of animosity.

Kim Jong-un would have been a boy when his grandfather died, and there is no sign of the young Kim in footage of the 1994 funeral. But it is clear from footage of him during the mourning period for his father that he has seen and studied the scene inside the presidential palace and is well-schooled in the behaviour expected as heir to the nation’s leader. The funeral in 1994 is likely to serve as the template for this week’s events.

At the time, details about Kim il- sung’s funeral in a country largely isolated from the West were shrouded in mystery, revealed only after state TV aired segments of the events in what was the world’s best glimpse of the hidden communist nation. Most foreigners aside from those living in North Korea were shut out, and the same is expected this week.

Back then, the formation of the funeral committee was examined closely for signs of who was expected to rise in power in the post-Kim il-sung era; likewise, observers dissected the 232 names on last week’s list to see who was still in favour.

When Kim il-sung died, it was unclear whether North Korea would follow traditional Korean mourning rites or use rituals seen elsewhere in the communist world. According to the official account of Kim il-sung’s death, what appeared to the world as North Korean ritual was a highly personal response by Kim Jong-il, who is credited by his official biography with choreographing every detail of the funeral.

The biography says there was discussion about where to bring Kim il-sung’s body, and it was the son who proposed turning the massive assembly hall where his father worked for 20 years into a public place of mourning – and then, a year later, into a permanent shrine where his embalmed body still lies.

Kim Jong-il’s biography also gives him credit for turning the funeral into a “scene of immortalising the leader” and for breaking tradition by picking a smiling image of the late president taken in 1986 instead of the sombre image typical for Korean funerals.

To this day, portraits of Kim il-sung that hang in every building and on the lapels of nearly all North Koreans show a smiling Kim il-sung. And since his death, pictures of Kim Jong-il erected at mourning sites across the nation show him beaming as well.

In North Korea, a streamlined, three-day mourning period is typical, and most workers are given three days’ paid leave for the death of a family member.