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What to Make of Kim Jong-il’s Funeral?


By Chad 0’Carroll

Hundreds of thousands of mourning North Koreans lined the bitterly cold streets of Pyongyang today to say goodbye to their leader, Kim Jong-il.  How real the tears were is impossible to say, but the images were nonetheless extremely reminiscent of what was seen at Kim Il Sung’s funeral  – aside from the fact that today’s  winter setting contrasted greatly with 1994’s summer funeral.  But beyond the surface similarities, one key difference remains – Kim Jong-un has only had a fraction of the time his father had to prepare for his role as the new leader of North Korea.

The plan had been to mirror Kim Il Sung’s funeral exactly – both Kims underwent an initial mourning period of ten days and the start of today’s two day funeral was meant to kick off at 10am, just as it did sixteen years ago.  However, things kicked off four hours later than planned today with heavy snow meaning additional time was required to clear the roads, a task in which mourners in Pyongyang were only too happy to help with.  And just as it has been doing over the last few days with other natural phenomena, North Korean media pounced on the snow as further evidence that nature itself was mourning Kim Jong-il: “the feathery snowfall reminds the Korean people of the snowy day when the leader was born in the secret camp of Mt. Paektu and of the great revolutionary career that he followed through snowdrifts”.   The purpose – to remind North Koreans of the almost supernatural qualities of their leaders – Kim Jong-un included.

In contrast to the funeral of Kim Il Sung, when most of the mourners were dressed in Western style suits, the initial scene outside the Kumsusan Palace was extremely militaristic.  Pictures showed a large military procession walking behind the hearse, with thousands of soldiers lining the streets on either side of the road to downtown Pyongyang.   Prior to the live feed going out, KCNA also repeated footage of Kim Jong-ils achievements that included video clips of North Korea’s controversial long-range missile launches.  This was likely in one part due to Kim Jong-il’s former role as chairman of the National Defense Commission and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, and in another part to reaffirm the importance of his focus on “songun” (military-first) politics during his tenure.  This increased emphasis on the military will have also been to help cement support for Kim Jong-un’s credentials, having been named a four star general himself just fourteen months ago.

As the convoy left the Kumsusan memorial palace, the hearse was accompanied by a small delegation of walking mourners, led by Kim Jong-un.  Mirroring his father’s role in Kim Il Sung’s funeral sixteen years ago, Kim Jong-un could be seen walking at the front right of the hearse, dressed in a long black coat and dark Mao style outfit.  With Kim Jong-un already having been styled to look closely like his grandfather Kim Il-Sung, this will have been a calculated move to help underscore the significance of Kim Jong-un as the “great successor”.  Broadcast throughout North Korea, this powerful imagery will make it difficult for any potential rivals to try and take power any time soon, suggesting to internal audiences at least, that the succession appear to be proceeding smoothly.

Walking alongside Kim Jong-un was a delegation of North Korea’s political and military leaders which included two key allies of Kim Jong-un : Jang Song-Thaek, and Ri Yong-ho.   Jang Song-Thaek is a powerful figure within North Korea, being Kim Jong-ils brother in law, vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission and a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee.  Once seen as a potential rival for leadership, his stature and support for Kim Jong-un will be critical in the short-to-medium term.  For his part, Ri Yong Ho is vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (second only to Kim Jong-un) and was recently appointed to the Politburo presidium, of which there are only five members. This now puts him at a critical juncture between the political and military powers in Pyongyang, and in a pivotal position to help support Kim Jong-un’s succession in the coming months.  Their placement among the key mourners, and importantly behind Kim Jong-un, will be seen as evidence of their tacit support for Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy as successor.

Just as during Kim Il Sung’s funeral, a huge smiling portrait of Kim Jong-il was positioned on top of the front car in the procession for the 40km drive into Pyongyang – a far step from the solemn imagery previously standard for communist funerals that is also traditional in Korean funerals.  If history is providing a template for proceedings in 2011, it seems likely that we can now expect the smiling image of Kim Jong-Il most recently published by KCNA to start appearing atop buildings and on posters throughout the country.  Used to the much older image seen in recent news reports , this younger, smiling Kim Jong-il will subtly help remind North Koreans of the loving care of their Dear Leader, and in turn help foster support for Kim Jong-un (albeit marginally).

So far, video of Kim Jong-il’s two other sons has not yet emerged.  There had been much debate as to whether Kim Jong-nam would make the funeral, having been outcast to a life in Macau following his failed attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyworld in 2001.  An outspoken member of the Kim family, his impromptu and controversial interviews with international media led to him falling out of favor with the Pyongyang elite.  At one point he had been once expected to take power after Kim Jong-il, but his non-appearance at the funeral suggest how far out of favor he now is and perhaps that it might not have been safe for him to return.   As for the other son Kim Jong Chol, while he is still believed to be in North Korea, Kim Jong-il’s former sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto wrote in a memoir that the Dear Leader thought Jong-chul was “no good because he is like a little girl”.  His non-appearance in the main procession may have merely been to ensure that all attention was directed at Kim Jong-un.

Although KCNA issued multiple indicators in advance of Kim Jong-il’s funeral that suggested foreigners would not be allowed attend, initial reports from Chinese government sources indicate that Chinese Ambassador to the DPRK, Liu Hongcai, was in attendance at the funeral today.  This was in contrast to Kim Il Sung’s funeral in 1994, which was a uniquely North Korean affair.  At that time, China – DPRK relations were in a relatively bad place, with Beijing having recognized Seoul just two years before in 1992, much to the ire of the DPRK.  With North Korea’s relationship with China having improved significantly in recent years, the exclusive invitation for the Chinese ambassador can be seen as Pyongyang showing appreciation for China’s recent public support for Kim Jong-un.

After about two hours, the convoy reached Pyongyang’s infamous Kim Il-Sung square.  It is not known yet whether the body will be returned to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace and mummified like that of Kim Il Sung.  With Kim Jong-il having been at the helm throughout the catastrophic famine that resulted in nearly a million dead in the mid 1990s, his popularity was never like that of his father.  While there was a brief period when Kim Jong-il lapel badges circulated freely alongside those depicting his father, in the early 2000s they were banned – few people wore them, such were their preference for Kim Il Sung.  And while statues of Kim Il Sung adorn squares all over North Korea, none can be found of Kim Jong-il – the Mansudae Art Studio that produces them was instead ordered post-1994 to focus on commemorating Kim Il Sung only.  In this context, moving Kim Jong-il’s body for permanent display alongside that of his father at the Kumsusan Palace might be seen in some quarters as in appropriate.  But at the same time, there is a compelling argument that putting the two together will help bolster the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un, something that is desperately needed at the moment.

Today’s funeral is a critical part of the Pyongyang regime’s attempt to shore up both support and loyalty for Kim Jong-un.  Replicating so many aspects of Kim Il Sung’s funeral and putting Kim Jong-un center stage will undoubtedly boost the successors profile significantly for internal audiences.  Elevating the position of the army was crucial during the proceedings, having built up so much power under the leadership of Kim Jong-il’s songun first polities.   Similarly, the decision to invite Chinese representatives was shrewd, an easy way to show appreciation for early support for Kim Jong-un from Beijing.  So far, so good.  But just how long Kim Jong-un can continue on course is no doubt the question on everyone’s lips.

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from David Stanley’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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6 Responses to “What to Make of Kim Jong-il’s Funeral?”

  1. Jim says:

    As others have pointed out, the picture of Kim Il Sung used in 1994 showed him smiling, so there is a precedent.
    Just why is Kim Il Sung Square “infamous” – is it any more infamous than Trafalgar Square in London?

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  2. […] period between his death and the funeral, the same as with Kim Il Sung, and (as many remarked at the time) the funeral ceremony was remarkably similar in style to the KIS […]

  3. […] period between his death and the funeral, the same as with Kim Il Sung, and (as many remarked at the time) the funeral ceremony was remarkably similar in style to the KIS […]


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