- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 28, 2011

PYONGYANG, North KoreaNorth Korea’s next leader escorted his father’s hearse in an elaborate state funeral on a bitter, snowy day Wednesday, bowing and saluting in front of tens of thousands of citizens who wailed and stamped their feet in grief for Kim Jong-il.

Son and successor Kim Jong-un was head mourner in Pyongyang, walking with one hand on the black hearse that carried his father’s coffin on its roof, his other hand raised in salute, his head bowed against the wind.

At the end of the 2½-hour procession, rifles fired 21 times as Kim Jong-un stood flanked by the top party and military officials who are expected to be his inner circle of advisers. Mr. Kim then saluted again as goose-stepping soldiers carrying flags and rifles marched by.

Although analysts say Kim Jong-un is on the path toward cementing his power and all moves in North Korea so far point in that direction, his age and inexperience leave questions about his long-term prospects.

Whereas his father was groomed for power for 20 years before taking over, the younger Mr. Kim has had only about two years.

He also faces the huge challenges of running a country that struggles to feed its people even as it pursues a nuclear-weapons program that has earned it international sanctions and condemnation.

Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack Dec. 17 at age 69.

As North Koreans mourned the loss of the second leader the nation has known, the transition of power to Kim Jong-un was well under way. The young man, who is in his late 20s, already is being hailed by state media as the “supreme leader” of the party, state and army.

Mr. Kim wore a long, dark overcoat as he strode alongside his father’s hearse accompanied by top party officials behind him and key military leaders on the other side of the limousine — a lineup that was a good look at who will be the core leadership in North Korea.

North Korea now turns to Thursday’s memorial ceremony. Although there will be tributes to Kim Jong-il, the country will be turning toward Kim Jong-un, analysts said.

“The message will be clear: Kim Jong-un now leads the country and there is no alternative,” said Kim Yeon-su, a North Korea specialist at the state-run Korea National Defense University in South Korea.

There also will be more attention paid to the inner circle forming around Kim Jong-un.

On Wednesday, he was accompanied by Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, who is expected to be crucial in helping Kim Jong-un take power.

Also escorting the limousine were military chief Ri Yong-ho and People’s Armed Forces Minster Kim Yong-Chun. Their presence indicates they will be important players as the younger Mr. Kim consolidates his leadership.

Top Workers’ Party officials Choe Thae-bok and Kim Ki-Nam and senior military officer Kim Jonggak also took prominent positions.