Wailing and sobbing mourners beat their chests and dropped to their knees as North Korean President Kim Il Sung’s hearse, draped with a red flag and bedecked with white magnolias, crawled through the streets of Pyongyang in 1994.
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 appeared stoic in a dark blue Mao-style suit in 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.
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 is well-schooled in the behavior expected as heir to the nation’s leader.
The 1994 funeral is likely to be the template for this week’s events.
At the time, details about the 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, though Rev. Moon Hyung-jin, an American citizen and son of Seoul-based Unification Church founder Rev. Sun Myung Moon, is planning to attend Wednesday’s funeral, according to church officials. The Moon family has business ties with the North.
In 1994, 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; observers likewise dissected the 232 names on last week’s list.
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, 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 his father’s funeral.
The biography says 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 Kim Il Sung’s embalmed body still lies.
Kim Jong Il’s biography also gives him credit 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, the portraits that hang in every building and on the lapels of nearly all North Koreans show a smiling Kim Il Sung. And since Kim Jong Il died, pictures 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.
After the closed-door funeral, Kim was seen in the footage 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 the 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 in sedans. Soldiers in jeeps flanked the procession.
North Koreans lined the streets and filled the air with theatrical wails, many of the women in traditional black dresses and with white mourning ribbons affixed to their hair.
The procession reached the central square that bears Kim Il Sung’s name, where hundreds of thousands of mourners were waiting. The hearse circled the square 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.
State media said a national memorial service for Kim Jong Il would start midday Thursday and include an artillery salute, three minutes of silence and locomotives and vessels blowing their sirens.
Footage Tuesday from Associated Press Television News in Pyongyang showed long lines of people carrying wreaths and bunches of white flowers toward a building with a huge picture of a smiling Kim Jong Il on its facade. They piled flowers beneath the photo, bowing and crying as they stood in the cold. Some pledged their loyalty to Kim Jong Un. Light traffic flowed through Pyongyang’s streets, people drinking hot tea at makeshift tents set up on the sidewalks.
The funeral for Kim Jong Il, who made it state policy to revere his father as North Korea’s “eternal” president, will likely be similar to Kim Il Sung’s but probably not outdo it, 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,” he said.
Kim Jong Il may have put his personal stamp on his father’s funeral, 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 seems likely fodder for his official biography: According to state media, he instructed the city to keep mourners lined up in subzero temperatures warm with hot water and tea.
Jean H. Lee | Associated Press