PYONGYANG, North Korea — Even as millions of North Koreans mourned Kim Jong Il in towns, villages and cities across the country Friday, attention and allegiances clearly began shifting to his young, untested son and heir.
Kim Jong Un, hailed as the “great successor” in state media, visited his father’s coffin again Friday, but dramatic scenes of mass mourning have been a daily occurrence in Pyongyang since Kim’s death was announced on Monday. Thousands of North Koreans, including the country’s top leaders, have poured into a funeral palace in the capital to view his body or bow before his portrait.
Mourning stations have been established in provincial, city and county seats and institutions. Small children braved bitter cold and wailed “at the top of their voices” over Kim Jong Il’s death as they held fairy tale books that Kim had given them, state media reported, and citizens mourned “with burning blood.”
North Korean television showed hours of footage Friday of people weeping at landmarks, some falling to the ground, others embracing as they cried; students in uniform called out “Father, father!” Soldiers were seen piling flowers beneath a portrait of a broadly smiling Kim and bowing deeply. In a stream of dispatches in the North’s official Korean Central News Agency about the country’ s grief was this simple headline: “Koreans Miss Kim Jong Il.”
“The sorrow at the loss of our leader is tremendous. But we would not stay in grief only,” Sok Kil Nam, a 24-year-old worker at the Chollima Steel Complex in the city of Nampho, told The Associated Press. He added: “As long as we have great comrade Kim Jong Un, the cause of the respected General Kim Jong Il will go on, so we continue working, not leaving our work sites.”
North Korea’s official media have been quick to feature the younger Kim in coverage of the mourning — a strong indication that the country’s leadership is behind installing the 20-something son as Kim Jong Il’s successor and the public face of the nation.
After initial jitters over possible instability, officials in Seoul and Washington are calling the transition so far a smooth one. There have been no outward signs of unrest on the streets or unusual troop movements along the borders.
“We continue to monitor and assess the situation and continue normal operations for stability and security in the region,” said Cmdr. Ron Steiner, a spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet, which is based in Japan.
The North, however, remains highly sensitive to what it sees as outside threats.
One North Korean media outlet known for being particularly strident in its commentary slammed South Korea for putting its military on a heightened alert level after Kim’s death, calling it an “insult” that derides the dignity of a nation in mourning.
The government-run website, Uriminzokkiri, also said the fate of relations between the two Koreas depends on how the South deals with requests from its civilians to visit the North to pay respects to Kim.
“We are watching the attitude of the South Korean government,” it said.
It said Pyongyang will accept anyone from South Korea hoping to pay respects to Kim Jong Il and that routes by both air and land will be opened. North Korea has said through its other media that foreign delegations would not be allowed in to attend the official funeral for Kim on Dec. 28-29.
The Korean peninsula remains in a state of war because the three-year Korean War ended in 1953 in a truce, not a peace treaty. Tanks and troops still guard the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone dividing the two sides.
Keenly aware of the sensitivities, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has sought to assure Pyongyang that his country is “not hostile,” despite putting its front-line troops on alert since Kim’s death was announced. On Friday, the presidential Blue House announced it had lifted an emergency mode for all government workers except those involved in security and foreign affairs.
In a parliamentary hearing, South Korean Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik said Seoul is open to dialogue with the North, if that would be constructive.
“I hope the emergence of the new leader will lead North Korea to move in the right direction and enhance the livelihoods of the North Korean people,” Yu said.
In a strong endorsement of the young Kim, the North’s main newspaper Rodong Sinmun has urged the country to “rally, rally and rally behind great comrade Kim Jong Un and faithfully uphold his leadership.”
It called him “the outstanding leader of our party, military and people and a great successor.”