Wednesday, December 28, 2011

North Korea Conducts Kim Jong-il's Funeral

North Korea is mourning the loss of the despot Kim Jong-il and the nation's propagandists are busy with the hagiography of both Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-un, who now leads the country. Western observers have little to go by on what is really going on in the country and who is holding the strings of power, so the funeral is an opportunity for them to remark upon who is and isn't involved in the funeral and their relative importance based on their positioning in the ceremonies.
The extensive funeral was closely watched for signs of shifts in power in the country’s enigmatic leadership. Mr. Kim’s two elder brothers, Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-chol, were nowhere to be seen.

Leading the funeral alongside and behind Mr. Kim were a familiar mix of military generals and party secretaries, including elderly stalwarts from the days of Kim Jong-il and his father, the North’s founding president, Kim Il-sung, and younger officials who expanded their influence while playing crucial roles in grooming the son as successor under the father’s tutelage.

Most prominent were the two men whose names seldom fail to pop up when North Korea watchers tried to dissect the palace intrigues in the capital, Pyongyang: Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle and vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, and Ri Yong-ho, head of the North Korean military’s general staff.

Mr. Jang’s influence as power broker expanded after Kim Jong-il, his brother-in-law, suffered a stroke in 2008. He appeared committed to extending the Kim family’s rule to the third generation but his own personal ambition remains shrouded in mystery.

Mr. Ri, a relatively unknown figure during most of Kim Jong-il’s rule, rose to prominence in the past two years as the late leader began grooming his son as heir. He is now considered an important backer of Kim Jong-un in the Korean People’s Army, whose support is key to his consolidation of power.

“If anything, the funeral indicates that Jang Song-taek and Ri Yong-ho will be the closest aides to Kim Jong-un,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University.

Less certain was whether and how a potential power game might play out among these aging generals and party secretaries more than twice Mr. Kim’s age. He could become either a forceful leader or a figurehead, depending on whether he can replicate the skills of his father, who kept the elites in line both by stocking their households with foreign luxury goods and by dispatching anyone who fell out of favor to labor camps, analysts said.

On the surface, the funeral appeared to proceed with a totalitarian choreography.

Kim Jong-un walked with one hand on the hearse and the other raised in salute. Neat rows of soldiers in olive-green uniforms stood, hats off and bowing, in front of the Kumsusan mausoleum, where Kim Jong-il’s body had been lying in state since his death was announced on Dec. 19.
Jong-un has clearly assumed power and is prominently featured in the ceremonies. His two brothers are not present. Walking behind Jong-un was Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law and a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission who is expected to play a crucial role in helping Kim Jong Un take power.

The North Korean propagandists are busy claiming that the snowfall is the heavens reacting to the death of a heavenly leader. It's also not surprising that there are huge crowds of mourners lining the funeral procession route. The cult of personality surrounding the Kim clan is all-consuming, and anyone who wavered from the party line could find themselves disappeared into the gulag archipelago. There are surely some who do mourn his loss, but this is a country where the regime controls the media, limits access to news from the outside world, and lives in abject poverty.

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