PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea’s power brokers publicly declared Kim Jong Un the country’s supreme leader for the first time at a massive public memorial Thursday for his father, cementing the family’s hold on power for another generation.
A somber Kim, dubbed the Great Successor, attended the memorial as he stood with his head bowed at the Grand People’s Study House, overlooking Kim Il Sung Square, named for his grandfather who founded modern North Korea.
A sea of humanity, including smartly dressed troops and civilians, gathered below him for the memorial that doubled as a show of support for his burgeoning role as leader.
The unequivocal public backing for Kim Jong Un provides a strong signal that government and military officials have unified around him in the wake of his father and long time ruler Kim Jong Il’s death Dec. 17.
“Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un is our party, military and country’s supreme leader who inherits great comrade Kim Jong Il’s ideology, leadership, character, virtues, grit and courage,” Kim Yong Nam, considered North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, said in a speech.
Kim Jong Un, wearing a dark overcoat, was flanked by top party and military officials, including Kim Jong Il’s younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, and her husband Jang Song Thaek, who are expected to serve as mentors of their young nephew.
“The father’s plan is being implemented,” Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Hawaii-based think tank, said of the transfer of power. “All of these guys have a vested interest in the system and a vested interest in demonstrating stability. The last thing they want to do is create havoc.”
Still, given Kim Jong Un’s inexperience and age — he is in his late 20s — there are questions outside North Korea about whether he is equipped to lead a nation engaged in long-stalled negotiations over its nuclear program and grappling with decades of economic hardship and chronic food shortages.
But support among North Korea’s power brokers was clear at the memorial service, which was attended by hundreds of thousands of people filling Kim Il Sung Square and other plazas in central Pyongyang.
Thursday’s memorial “was an event to publicly reconfirm and solidify” Kim Jong Un’s status, said Jeung Young-tae, an analyst with the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, South Korea.
Life in the North Korean capital came to a standstill as mourners dressed in thick, dark colored jackets blanketed the plaza from the Grand People’s Study House to the Taedong River for the second day of funeral ceremonies for the late leader. A giant red placard hanging on the front of a building facing Kim Il Sung Square urged the country to rally around Kim Jong Un.
Kim Jong Il, who led his 24 million people with absolute power for 17 years, died of a heart attack Dec. 17 at age 69, according to state media. He inherited power from his father Kim Il Sung, who died of a heart attack in 1994, in what was the communist world’s first hereditary succession.
Attention turned to Kim Jong Un after he was revealed last year as his father’s choice among three known sons to carry the Kim dynasty into a third generation.
The process to groom him was rushed compared to the 20 years Kim Jong Il had to prepare to take over from his father, and relied heavily on the Kim family bloodline and legacy as guerrilla fighters and the nation’s founders.