NORTH Korea staged a vast memorial service for Kim Jong-il overnight, and formally declared his young son Kim Jong-un as the new supreme leader.
The nationwide memorial ceremony for North Korea’s departed leader wrapped up two days of brilliantly choreographed mourning events while setting a very public seal on the successorship of the third-generation Kim family member to hold power in Pyongyang.
Thursday’s memorial was less emotional than Wednesday’s funeral, but like the previous event, demonstrated that the regime has not lost any of its power to mobilise masses. Hundreds of thousands of people were packed into Kim Il-sung Square in the heart of the capital.
It also indicated that the Korean People’s Army, which played a prominent role in the funeral ceremony, remains central to this hardline, ultra-nationalist state dominated by a “military first” policy. The crowd appeared to be predominantly, though not entirely, composed of soldiers.
Above all, it was the clearest sign yet that the third-generation succession of the Kim dynasty is a sealed deal.
The young leader Kim Jong-un’s only official title is vice-chairman of the Korean Workers Party Central Military Commission, but he has, following his father Kim Jong-il’s passing on Dec 17, been lauded by state media as “successor” and “leader”.
In a speech from the balcony of the Grand People’s Study House overlooking the square, Kim Yong-nam (no relation), head of the Supreme Presidium of the Korean Workers Party and so nominal head of state, declared Kim Jong-un, “supreme leader” of the party, military and people.
"The fact that he completely resolved the succession matter is Great Comrade Kim Jong-il's most noble achievement,” he added.
In another speech, General Kim Jong-gak (also, no relation), who heads the military bureau which monitors officers’ loyalty, noted that Kim Jong-un was “the supreme leader of our revolutionary armed forces.”
The new leader himself, dressed in sombre black, presided over events in the center of the balcony, flanked by party bigwigs and generals. Kim Jong-un did not address the crowd, following the lead set by his late father who only ever made one public pronouncement - when, during a military parade, he blurted out, “Long live the glorious Korean People’s Army!”
The ceremony took place in front of the of the iconic Grand People’s Study House, a huge building which, it is claimed, houses a library of 30 million volumes. It stands opposite the landmark “Juche Tower” – representing Kim Il-sung’s “Self-reliance” policy - over the Taedong River.
Kim and other dignitaries stood on the house’s balcony, from which the speeches were delivered. Jang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission and widely believed to be Kim’s right-hand man, and his wife Kim Kyong-hui – Kim Jong-ils’ wife and Kim Jong-un’s aunt – were both present.
A small foreign group, probably Pyongyang’s diplomatic corps, was also present.
A military band began proceedings with mournful music and a salute was fired by an eight-gun battery – a modest affair by the standards of North Korea’s 1.1 million-strong military. The event wrapped up with three minutes of silence, after which car horns and engine whistles were blown nationwide, state media reported.
Analysts said the events appeared to cement stability and unity.
“If you look at this funeral and memorial process, it is a means to show a people who cannot revolt the unity of their political leadership,” said Kim Byung-ki, a security expert at Korea University in Seoul.
The memorial received less TV coverage in South Korea than the previous day’s funeral, but some Seoul-based commentators were infuriated by the two-day spectacle.
“It is a painful thing to watch this outpouring of emotion for someone who has been one of the most terrible despots of the 20th and 21st centuries,” said Tim Peters, a Seoul-based American missionary who assists North Korean defectors in China and South Korea. “It is completely incongruous with reality.”
South Korea’s conservative Dong-A Ilbo newspaper fumed at the cost of the ceremonials, and the resting place of the two senior Kims. “The official residence of Kim Il-sung, which was built at a cost of U.S. 1 billion dollars in 1977, was turned into the world`s largest and most luxurious grave after his death,” the paper noted in an editorial entitled “Palace of Shame.”
The Kims’ claim to infamy extends well beyond raising epic monuments and creating the world’s first family-run, post-communist dynasty.
They engineered arguably the world’s most insulated state - one that suffers no apparent internal dissent and a bare trickle of defectors over its highly porous China border – and fortified it with a nuclear arsenal.
But they also started the apocalyptic 1950-1953 Korean War and imprisoned hundreds of thousands in grim labor and re-education camps.
Kim Jong-il, who ruled from 1994 to this year, oversaw the crumbling of North Korea’s economy, the destitution of its peasantry, famine and mass starvation - the “arduous march” that may have killed two million people.