Reclusive leader was revered at home, according to state propaganda, but viewed as a temperamental tyrant by the West.
Kim Jong-un, the son and apparent successor of North Korea’s late leader Kim Jong-il, has visited the body of his father to pay his respects, state media reports.
“Comrade Kim Jong-un … paid a visit to the body of comrade Kim Jong-il with party, government and military officials and expressed condolences with the deepest sorrow,” said the state KCNA news agency amid official national mourning for the man known as the “Dear Leader” in the secretive communist state.
Kim’s body was laid in a glass coffin at Pyongyang’s Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where Kim Il-sung, his father and founder of North Korea, has been on display since his death in 1994.
State media hailed Kim Jong-un as the “great successor” as flags flew at half staff, shops were closed and streams of mourners placed flowers at memorials around the city.
Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack on Saturday, according to state media. The government kept the death secret until a tearful television announcer disclosed it on Monday and urged people to rally round his youngest son.
State television aired footage of near-hysterical residents, young and old alike, pounding the ground in displays of abject grief. The state funeral is to be held on December 28, with authorities declaring a period of national mourning until December 29.
Don Kirk, the South Korea correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor, told Al Jazeera that it was difficult to gauge the real feelings of North Koreans reacting to Kim’s death.
“If you’re living in Pyongyang, you’re going to weep and wail. Whether or not you’re shedding genuine tears is another matter,” he said.
“The woman who announced the passing of Kim Jong-il on television yesterday wept and wailed through the whole programme but nobody saw tears trickling down her cheeks.
“I suspect a lot of it is sort of an act, while there’s probably some genuine grief on the part of some people in Pyongyang, out in the countryside it’s another matter. Those people are starving, they’re under-fed, they’re disease-ridden.
“Many would like nothing better than crossing the Yalu or Tumen rivers into China on their way to South Korea or another country.”
Kim Jong-il indicated a year ago that Kim Jong-un, his youngest son, would be his successor, putting him in high-ranking posts.
KCNA on Tuesday described Kim Jong-un as a “a great person born of heaven”, a term only his father and his grandfather Kim Il-sung had enjoyed.
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The Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, added in an editorial that Kim Jong-un was “the spiritual pillar and the lighthouse of hope” for the military and the people.
Amid uncertainty over the future stability of the nuclear-armed nation, the US called for a peaceful and stable leadership transition in North Korea, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also expressing concern for the well-being of the country’s population.
“The United States stands ready to help the North Korean people and urges the new leadership to work with the
international community to usher in a new era of peace, prosperity and lasting security on the Korean Peninsula,”
she said in a statement.
“It is our hope that the new leadership… will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by honouring North Korea’s commitments, improving relations with its neighbours, and respecting the rights of its people.”
South Korean condolences
South Korea’s government sent condolences on Tuesday to the North Korean people despite tense relations following two deadly border incidents last year.
“The government expresses condolences to the North Korean people,” said Unification Minister Yu Woo-Ik.
South Korea’s military has been put on high alert, while the cabinet and the parliament convened emergency meetings on Tuesday.
In a parliamentary committee on intelligence, Won Sei-hoon, the chief of the main South Korean spy agency, said he learned of Kim’s death only after the North’s announcement, the Yonhap news agency reported.
In China, one of North Korea’s few allies, the frontpage of the state-sponsored China Daily displayed the headline “A Friend’s Departure”.
“The message is that this is not a dictator departed, it’s a friend departed,” Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan, reporting from Beijing, said. “Chinese state media sometimes refer to North Korea as the ‘brother country’ so [they have] very good relations, at least that’s the message that the government wants to send.”
President Hu Jintao visited North Korea’s embassy in Beijing on Tuesday to offer his condolences.
Kim took power in 1994 upon the death of Kim Il-sung, who had led North Korea since the Korean peninsula was split in half by the Korean War. Although the two sides signed a ceasefire in 1953 they remain technically at war.
He continued his father’s policy of “military first”, devoting much of the country’s scarce resources to its troops and building the world’s fifth-largest military even as many of his country’s 23-million population suffered from a prolonged famine.
Kim also sought to develop the country’s nuclear arms arsenal, which culminated in North Korea’s first nuclear test explosion, an underground blast conducted in October 2006. Another test followed in 2009.