On a bitterly cold 28th December the world was privy to the biggest single event to hit North Korea since the 1994 passing of the first, and still current President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Il Sung. The flowing of tears, the choreography planned down to the slightest detail, and the sheer emotion of the event bought everyone back to 1994. But this time, there were certainly differences. Forgetting the fact that the blisteringly cold winter setting was nothing like the April funeral of Kim Il Sung, the one key difference here was the matter of succession. Kim Jong Un is not Kim Jong Il, who had fourteen years to ingratiate himself to the Korean people. Kim Jong Un has had less than two years.
Kim Jong Il’s reign in the DPRK is an often misunderstood one in the West, he was important, obviously, but much as Kim Jong Un is not his father, Kim Jong Il was not Kim Il Sung. Therefore his funeral was never going to be a grander affair than his father’s. Thus it was unsurprising to see the funeral being planned, at least, as a direct copy of the 1994 affair. Both Kim’s underwent an official ten days of mourning, and both funerals were planned to take place at 10 am. Although weather this time meant the funeral began four hours late, with mourning Pyongyangers only too happy to help with the clearing of the roads.
Much as happened after Kim Il Sungs passing, the state controlled KCNA (Korean Central News Association) proclaimed the snow as evidence the world was reminding the people of the snowy birthplace of Kim Jong Il. In death more so than life, the mystical qualities of the leadership remain at the forefront.
One very noticeable difference this time was in the dress of the mourners. In comparison to the funeral of Kim Il Sung where people were dressed predominantly in Western style suits, the military played a much more prominent role during this funeral, echoing the achievements and ideology of Comrade Kim Jong Il, the Songun, or military first policy. With the funeral and therefore live feed being delayed, the KCNA instead played video clips of the achievements of the reign of Kim Jong Il, which according to state media included the launching of two satellites, and the extremely controversial long range missile launches.
Kim Jong Il had been lying in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the former office and now eternal resting place of his embalmed father, and as such this was where the convoy left from, with the hearse being led by Kim Jong Un decked out in a long black coat and Mao era suit. The physical resemblance between Jong Un and his grandfather Kim Il Sung as a young man are uncanny, and his choice of dress combined with new designation as the ‘great successor’ underscore the opinion of many North Korean watchers that the ‘great successor’ opines his legitimacy not from being the son of the deceased, but as the grandson and lookalike of not only the father of the North Korean nation, but of everything the DPRK stands for.
Unsurprisingly the walking delegation accompanying the heir designate included all potential power brokers in the new Kim Jong Un regime, with Jang Song Thaek and Ri Yong Ho holding prominent positions. Jang Song Thaek is a particularly interesting figure, being not only married to Kim Jong Il’s sister, but also being seen as a hardliner and loyalist to everything Kim, and a somewhat mentor figure to the new leader. Ri Yong Ho on the other hand is a vice-chairman of the National Defense Committee, and a member of the all powerful Politburo, and as such a critical intermediary between party, military and state. Their positions at the forefront of the mourners, behind only Kim Jong Un, should be seen as cast iron support from them to the new leadership, in the short term at least.
As happened during the funeral of his father, the leading car in the procession had a huge portrait of General Kim Jong Il. Interestingly a picture of the younger Kim smiling, much as the pictures of the older Kim also have, seemingly to remind the people of the love he held for the people. After the funeral of 1994, these portraits then began appearing on buildings throughout the country. Whether the same thing happens this time, and if they try to raise his stature to that of his father’s, remains to be seen.
Equally as fascinating as looking out for who was present was looking out for who was absent. Kim Jong Un being only one of the three sons present. His oldest sibling, Kim Jong Nam is a controversial figure, who up until being caught on a false passport trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland in 2001, had been considered the heir designate. This embarrassment made it untenable for him to be even considered for leadership. The other son Kim Jong Chul was alleged by Kim Jong Il’s former chef to be too much ‘like a little girl’, leaving Kim Jong Un as the only legitimate family heir. And although Japanese media has claimed that the older son later visited to pay his respects, their lack of appearance was surely a way to ensure that all attention was firmly placed in one direction.
Finally, the cortege reached the formidable Kim Il Sung Square and a massive outpouring of grief, so often repeated and mocked in Western media, followed.
One of many lingering questions is whether Kim Jong Il would be buried or embalmed and placed in the mausoleum with his father. Now whilst this question may seem a simple one to outsiders, a few points should be remembered. Kim Il Sung genuinely lead the country through the war with Japan, the Korean war, and until the mid 70’s a more stable and economically prosperous country than the Seoul regime. Kim Jong Il on the other hand, led the country through the famine of 1994-97, economic hardship and isolation. Like it or not, no propaganda could make Kim Jong Il as popular as his father, with his legitimacy being solely down to his relationship with his father. Where this leaves Kim Jong Un, the almost unknown grandson remains to be seen, but for the time being at least it is business as usual in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.Tags: Asia
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This post was written by Reece Ferguson