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North Koreans salute, cry for late leader Kim Jong-il

- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 28, 2011

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Tens of thousands of North Koreans lined the snowy streets of Pyongyang on Wednesday, wailing and clutching their chests as a black hearse carried late leader Kim Jong-il's body through the capital for a final farewell.

The procession also put his young son and successor, Kim Jong-un, on center stage. He was head mourner on a gray and freezing day, walking with one hand on the hearse, the other raised in salute, his head somberly bowed against the wind.

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

Kim Jong-il — who led the nation with absolute rule after father Kim Il-sung's death in 1994, through a devastating famine that killed hundreds of thousands and a controversial drive to build up nuclear and missile programs that earned North Korea international sanctions and condemnation — died of a heart attack Dec. 17 at age 69.

Mourners in parkas lined the streets of Pyongyang, waving, stamping and crying as the convoy bearing his coffin passed by. Some struggled to get past police holding back the crowd.

"How can the sky not cry?" a weeping soldier standing in the snow said to state TV. "The people ... are all crying tears of blood."

The dramatic scenes of grief showed how effectively North Korea has built a personality cult around Kim Jong-il despite chronic food shortages and decades of economic hardship.

Even 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 late 20s, is already being hailed by state media as the "supreme leader" of the party, state and army.

Mr. Kim was somber in 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 provided a good look at who will make up the core leadership in North Korea.

Behind him 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.

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 Jong-gak also took prominent positions.

"It shows they will be core powers in North Korea," said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. "Particularly, Jang Song-thaek and Ri Yong-ho will be key to Kim Jong-un's leadership."

The early part of the funeral ceremony was shrouded in secrecy, as in 1994, when Kim Il-sung died. Back then, Kim Jong-il and top officials held a private, hourlong ceremony inside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace before the procession through the city, according to his official biography.

Pyongyang's foreign diplomats were invited to attend the procession, though few other outsiders appeared to be allowed into the country for the funeral.

After showing taped footage of mourners and documentaries of Kim Jong-il, state TV began airing the procession, showing cars moving slowly through the snowy city, led by a limousine carrying a huge portrait of a smiling Kim Jong-il.

His father's Lincoln Continental followed bearing Kim Jong-il's coffin, wrapped in a red flag.

A national memorial service will take place at noon Thursday, state media said.

Wednesday's procession had a stronger military presence than 1994.

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.

The strong military presence suggests Mr. Kim will uphold his father's military-first policy, Mr. Yoo said.

Kim Jong-un was made a four-star general and appointed a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers' Party last year.

After the funeral, the young Mr. Kim is expected to cement his power by formally assuming command of the 1.2 million-strong military, and becoming general secretary of the Workers' Party and chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, Mr. Yoo said.

Kim Jong-il's two other sons, Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-chol, were not spotted at the procession.

Associated Press Korea Bureau Chief Jean H. Lee and writers Hyung-jin Kim, Foster Klug, Scott McDonald and Sam Kim in Seou contributed to this report.

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