SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il kept the world guessing in death as in life, with state media keeping quiet about the timing and details of his funeral Wednesday.
Kim, who led the nation with an iron fist following his father Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, died of a heart attack Dec. 17 at age 69, according to state media. He is to be succeeded by his young son Kim Jong Un, already being hailed as the “supreme leader” of the party, state and army.
After more than a week of mourning, a funeral was set for Wednesday and a memorial service for Thursday. Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency said the funeral began at 10 a.m., but provided no further details.
North Korea’s sole TV station, however, was showing only taped footage of sobbing mourners filing past Kim’s begonia-bedecked bier, a military orchestra playing odes to Kim and archive footage of Kim Jong Il providing “on-the-spot” guidance.
At noon, a broadcaster in a dark suit gravely read out a news dispatch about Kim Jong Un visiting his father’s bier on Tuesday with top party and military officials. He noted that Kim Jong Il’s body had been lying in state in Kumsusan Memorial Palace, suggesting the body was moved.
A private ceremony attended by Kim Jong Un and top party and military officials was expected to be held in an inner sanctum of Kumsusan. Foreign dignitaries were asked to gather at a sports stadium shortly before noon to be taken to Kumsusan to see the hearse pass at the start of a funeral procession through Pyongyang, according to a diplomat who asked that her name not be used due to the sensitivity of the details.
Heavy snow was falling in Pyongyang, which state media characterized in the early days of mourning as proof that the skies were “grieving” for Kim as well. Footage on state TV showed images of swirling snow, the log cabin in far northern Mount Paektu where Kim is said to have been born, and the mountain named after Kim Jong Il where his name is carved into the rocky face in red.
State television also replayed images of missiles being fired and the April 2009 long-range rocket launch that earned North Korea strengthened U.N. sanctions. The U.S., South Korea and other nations called it a test for a missile designed to strike the United States; North Korea said the rocket sent a communications satellite into space.
There was no sign Wednesday morning of Kim’s youngest son. All week, the stocky future leader has been dressed in a somber blue suit similar to the one his father wore in 1994 during the mourning period for Kim Il Sung. As his father did 17 years earlier, he has been seen approaching the bier and bowing deeply in a traditional sign of respect, often flanked by top military generals.
Two other sons, Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chol, have not been spotted in the mourning footage.
The young Kim made his public debut just last year with a promotion to four-star general and an appointment as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party.
But in the days since his father’s death, the campaign to install him as the next leader has been swift, with state media bestowing him with new titles, including “great successor,” ”supreme leader” and “sagacious leader.”
Even as they mourned his father with dramatic displays of grief at memorials and at Kumsusan, North Korea’s officials have pledged their loyalty to his son.
In an essay paying homage to Kim Jong Il on Wednesday, Workers’ Party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun said North Korea under his leadership had been “dignified as a country that manufactured and launched artificial satellites and accessed nukes,” referring to the country’s nuclear program.
“Thanks to these legacies, we do not worry about the destiny of ourselves and posterity at this time of national mourning,” the essay said, carried in English by the Korean Central News Agency.
North Korea, it said, will be left in the “warm care” of Kim Jong Un.
“Supreme leader of our party and people Kim Jong Un takes warm care of the people left by Kim Jong Il. Every moment of Kim Jong Un’s life is replete with loving care and solicitude for the people,” the essay said.
Few details about the funeral were made public but the ceremonies are expected to follow the tradition set in 1994 with Kim Il Sung’s death — but with Kim Jong Il’s namesake red “kimjongilia” begonias replacing the magnolias for Kim Il Sung, and snow and frost as a backdrop rather than sun and greenery.
In July 1994, the funeral began with a private ceremony attended by Kim Jong Il and top officials before a long procession through Pyongyang to Kim Il Sung Square, the main plaza in the capital, where hundreds of thousands of mourners were waiting.
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.
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 nation. Most foreigners aside from those living in North Korea were shut out, and the same is expected this week.
A stronger military presence than in 1994 is likely.
Kim Jong Il, who ushered in a “military first” era when he took power, 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 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.
In the Chinese border city of Dandong, across the Yalu River from North Korea, dozens of people crowded into North Korea’s consular offices and into a North Korean restaurant across the street hoping to watch the funeral on television. Many were dressed in black and wore the Kim Il Sung badges common among North Koreans.
The funeral for Kim Jong Il, who made it state policy to revere his father as North Korea’s “eternal” president, probably won’t outdo his father’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,” he said.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Eugene Hoshiko in Dandong, China, contributed to this report. Follow Jean H. Lee at twitter.com/newsjean.