What to look for at NKorea funeral for Kim Jong Il

Wailing and sobbing, mourners beat their chests and dropped to their knees as North Korean President Kim Il Sung's hearse crawled through the streets of Pyongyang in 1994, draped with a red flag and bedecked with white magnolias.

But even as they cried out on a hot summer's day for the leader they called “Father,” they began pledging their loyalty to his son, leader-in-waiting Kim Jong Il, who cut a solemn and somber figure in a dark blue suit, a black band wrapped around his left arm.

Same setting, different season: Similar shows of grief are expected when North Korea lays Kim Jong Il to rest in a winter chill during two days of funeral ceremonies on Wednesday and Thursday. As in 1994, the events will be watched closely for clues to who will gain power and who will fall out of favor under the next leader, his son Kim Jong Un.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jean H. Lee, the Associated Press bureau chief for Korea, has made 11 trips to North Korea since 2008, including eight visits this year.

This state funeral, however, is 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 Dec. 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 airplanes.”

Like his father was in 1994, Kim Jong Un has been stoic in a dark blue Mao-style suit in mourning period appearances at Kim Jong Il's bier — 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 Monday with 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's no sign of the young Kim in footage of the 1994 funeral. But it's 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 behavior 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 favor.

When Kim Il Sung died, it was unclear whether North Korea would hew to traditional Korean mourning rites or follow 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 immortalizing the leader” and for breaking tradition by picking a smiling image of the late president taken in 1986 instead of the somber 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.

The official biography says Kim Jong Il picked one of his father's neckties for the body and ordered the portrait bedecked with magnolias, the national flower, not traditional black ribbon. He arranged for the coffin to be transported in the black sedan Kim used as president, rather than a gun carriage or armored car, and called for the “Song of Gen. Kim Il Sung” to be played in lieu of a dirge, his biography says.

After the closed-door funeral, footage shows Kim leaving the hall and standing on a dais sheathed in red, surveying the scene alongside top party and military officials as the black Lincoln Continental bearing his father's body departs the palace grounds to a military salute.

A car with Kim's massive portrait ringed with white magnolias led the motorcade, followed by the hearse bearing the president's body, and then a phalanx of police in white helmets riding on motorcycles in a “V'' formation.

Kim Jong Il and other members of the funeral committee followed slowly behind in sedans. Soldiers in jeeps flanked the procession.

Through the streets of Pyongyang the procession went, from the Kumsusan Assembly Hall where official accounts say Kim died to the central square that bears his name, and eventually back to the vast palace where his body lies in state.

North Koreans lined the streets and filled the air with theatrical wails, many of the women in traditional black Korean dresses and white mourning ribbons affixed to their hair.

The procession reached Kim Il Sung Square, where hundreds of thousands of mourners were waiting, and the hearse circled the square again before returning to the assembly hall for a gun salute.

A similar procession may be in the works for Wednesday, but with the late leader's trademark red “kimjongilia” begonias replacing the magnolias, and snow and frost as a backdrop.

But the funeral for Kim Jong Il, who made it state policy to revere Kim Il Sung as North Korea's “eternal” president, probably will not outdo that for his father, some said.

“Kim Jong Il's funeral will likely be similar to Kim Il Sung's. But it doesn't mean that the majesty and dignity of Kim Jong Il's funeral will exceed those of Kim Il Sung's,” said Prof. Jeong Jin-gook of the Daejeon Health Sciences College in South Korea. “Kim Il Sung still remains the most respected among North Koreans.”

Kim Jong Il observed a three-year period of mourning for his father — a decision harking back to Korean tradition.

Mourning rites have evolved over the decades. In South Korea, most people observe a three- or five-day mourning period. But few families receive mourners at home anymore; South Korea has a thriving and organized network of mourning facilities at hospitals where everything from the mourning clothes to the food and drinks offered to visitors can be arranged for a fee.

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, according to the Korea Institute for National Unification in South Korea.

Before the peninsula's 1945 division, some Koreans mourned the loss of a parent for up to two years, according to Prof. Lim Jae-hae, a folklorist at Andong National University in South Korea.

Kim Jong Il may have put his personal stamp on his father's funeral in 1994, but so far Kim Jong Un is sticking to tradition. From the blue suit to the solemn bows before the begonia-bedecked bier, the young leader-in-waiting has closely followed his father's cues.

Still, he is credited with one directive that wasn't in Kim Jong Il's biography but will no doubt serve as fodder for his: He instructed the city to keep mourners lined up in subzero temperatures warm with hot water and tea.


Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Sam Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report. Follow AP Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee at twitter.com/newsjean.

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