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In North Korea, Lavish Praise For The Heir Apparent

Filed by KOSU News in World News.
December 20, 2011

North Korean state-run television today showed Kim Jong Il lying in state — and for the first time since his death, it also showed the man being prepared to inherit the mantle of power.

Kim Jong Un looked solemn, frowning as he paid his respects and bowed to his father’s body laid out in a glass coffin, surrounded by red flowers known as Kimjongilia.

Kim Jong Il died on Saturday morning local time from a heart attack, brought about by “great mental and physical strain,” according to official North Korean news agency KCNA. He was on a train, since he had been on an inspection tour outside the capital Pyongyang at the time. However, the news was not released to the public until Monday morning.

North Korean state propaganda is now calling the younger Kim another “leader sent from heaven,” a term formerly reserved for his father and grandfather.

“This is Kim Jong Un’s era,” says Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “Kim Jong Un has been supported by the key power holders in North Korea. There is no sign that there is any serious power struggle among his entourage at the moment.”

Paik says this transition of power has been carefully choreographed.

“The official announcement of the obituary was made two days after [the] actual death of Kim Jong Il. What happened in those two days? During those two past days, the key power holders in North Korea have agreed to support Kim Jong Un as the new leader of North Korea,” he says.

And there were likely other factors at play too, such as ensuring the right reaction from the people, namely the noisy displays of mass mourning which continued across North Korea for a second day. That’s the view of Jerome Sauvage, the United Nations coordinator in North Korea, speaking from Pyongyang.

“That explains the announcement on a Monday, so that everyone would be in their respective work units,” Sauvage said. “This way there’s a better ability to control the message and control the reaction, and make sure that people are able to take action within the confine of their work units.”

‘I Did Not Feel Anything’

Such outward exhibitions of grief lie in stark contrast to the reaction of one man who today gave his first Western media interview about his family’s ties with the late North Korean leader.

Song Il Ki was for a while effectively Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, though he never met the late leader. Kim fell in love with Song’s sister, Song Hye Rim, then a famous actress, who at that time was already married to a classmate of Kim’s at the Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang.

She became pregnant with Kim’s first son, Kim Jong Nam, who was later disgraced when he was caught trying to smuggle himself into Japan to visit Disneyland on a forged Dominican Republic passport in 2001.

But Song Hye Rim fell out of favor with Kim, who took on other wives. She ended up living in Moscow, where she became very depressed.

“At first he was pretty good and provided money for living expenses and bought her a Mercedes Benz,” her brother Song Il Ki said. “But later he stopped sending money. You can’t say he was fully responsible for her illness, but when a husband cheats on his wife, it’s always stressful.”

Song Il Ki visited his sister in Moscow, but even there, they could never talk openly since she was so closely monitored. She died in 2002. Before that, however, there was another family tragedy.

The Song’s sister, Song Hye Rang, who’d also been part of Kim Jong Il’s household, defected to the West in 1996 after two of her children had defected.

But one of her sons (and Song Il Ki’s nephew), Li Il Nam, was shot dead in a suburb of Seoul in 1997, assassinated by a North Korean hitman. Song Il Ki doesn’t mince words when asked how he feels about Kim Jong Il.

“Kim Jong Il was not a human being,” he said. “His father was a dictator and killed so many people. Then he was another dictator, and now he wants to extend his dictatorship.”

But Song’s been numbed by his family’s ordeals. He said he had no reaction to Kim’s death.

“I did not feel anything. I no longer feel sorrow, or pleasure. I don’t have emotions like that,” he said. “I feel numb.”

Preparations For Kim Jong Un

But Kim Jong Il’s era is now clearly over, and analysts in the South are looking ahead. John Delury from Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea says power is likely to be vested in a new leadership group, with Kim Jong Un as its public face.

Delury says he’s attended many conferences dealing with contingency scenarios for North Korea, which always hinge on the sudden death of Kim Jong Il.

“I don’t think we’re going to see North Korea collapse. I think we’re going to see a new constellation of leaders, and [we're] going to have to deal with that reality and hope we can do better dealing with that reality than we did dealing with Kim Jong Il era,” he says.

The hard questions lie ahead, like how Kim Jong Un and those who surround him will deal with the shifting morass of alliances, and especially the military.

For now, the first test is navigating his father’s funeral — at the same time as building up his own personality cult. For the man described today as “a lighthouse of hope” for the nation, that process is clearly underway. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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