Kim Jong-il funeral: Choreographed procession ignores North Korea's destitution
EVEN the weather cooperated to send off North Korea’s "Dear Leader" in style: Rolling across a carpet of snow, Kim Jong-il's funeral procession choreographed communist militarism and mass emotion, while elevating the prestige of successor Kim Jong-un.
But winding through the showpiece capital Pyongyang, a city largely inhabited by regime elite, the procession passed no signs of the devastated infrastructure, human destitution and malnutrition that have stalked North Korea’s countryside during most of Kim’s rule.
Kim, who died, according to state media of “overwork” on Dec 17, had lain in state for over a week.
He had ruled North Korea since the death of his father, “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung, in 1994.
Though he secured his regime with nuclear weapons, that process earned international approbation at a time when as many as two million people died from famines.
In the absence of foreign media attendees in Pyongyang, all funeral footage was aired by North Korean state media.
The earliest pictures showed a parade of soldiers outside Kumsusan Memorial Palace bowing as a limousine bearing a giant portrait of Kim led a hearse with his coffin mounted on its roof. Accompanying the hearse on foot were a group of dignatories, led by Kim Jong-un, Kim’s third son and appointed successor.
Walking directly behind the younger Kim was Jang Song-thaek, the man who emerged after 2008 as one of the key figures in the late Kim’s government, and who is widely expected to act as a “regent” guiding Kim Jong-un as he assumes control.
The other walkers included two Korea Workers Party secretaries, the defence minister, and two senior military officers.
The heavy military presence was appropriate given North Korea’s “Military First” policy, but not all watching troops were stoic: the TV cameras lingered on a group of attractive female soldiers, wailing theatrically.
The hearse and accompanying limousines proceeded on a 40-kilometer route through the capital, escorted by a convoy of army jeeps and trucks.
The route passed many of the city’s most grandiose monuments and locales, including the Arc de Triomphe (modeled after, but larger than its Parisian equivalent) and Kim Il-sung Square (a massive plaza paved with the rubble of bombed Korean War ruins).
Streets were lined with thousands of mourners braving the winter weather, with many – particularly those in the front rows - weeping dramatically, while state media commentators effusively praised the deceased dictator.
“Our comrade, who established the most independent nation, did everything he could do in the world, both great and tiny works, for the glory of the country and the happiness of the people,” the broadcast anchor said. “Where has he gone? Our people and army are beating their breasts.”
As the procession passed, one distraught onlooker wailed, “Fatherly general!” The anchor responded: “General, can you hear this? The sound of the suffering of the patriotic martyrs?”
The procession finished at Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where it had started. The actual funeral service was held behind closed doors. Russian embalmers have reportedly been invited in to preserve Kim’s corpse; the cadaver will most likely go public display alongside Kim Il-sung’s.
Having buried his father, the young Kim, believed to be only 27 or 28, now faces the daunting task of governing a dilapidated, isolated nation.
But he has one advantage. However dangerous and ruinous his dynasty has been, the country's key neighbours, South Korea and China, both want continued stability.
“Ironically, nobody wants to shove him out of power,” said Michael Breen, a Seoul-based biographer of Kim Jong-il, “People fear instability.”