World

North Koreans mourn Kim Jong-il

The body of North Korea's long-time ruler Kim Jong-il was laid out in a memorial palace as weeping mourners filled public plazas and state media fed a budding personality cult around his third son, hailing him as "born of heaven."

Body displayed as state media hail successor

The body of North Korea's long-time ruler Kim Jong-il was laid out in a memorial palace Tuesday as weeping mourners filled public plazas and state media fed a budding personality cult around his third son, hailing him as "born of heaven."

Indicating that the leadership transition in the communist dynasty is on track, Kim Jong-un -- Kim's youngest known son and successor -- visited the body with top military and Workers' Party officials and held what state media called a "solemn ceremony" in the capital, Pyongyang, as the country mourned.

The Korean people were in "deep sorrow at the loss of the benevolent father of our nation," Ri Ho Il, a lecturer at the Korean Revolutionary History Museum, told The Associated Press in Pyongyang.

"He defended our people's happiness, carrying on his forced march both night and day," Ri said.

Still images aired on state TV showed that the glass coffin holding Kim's body was surrounded by his namesake flowers -- red "kimjongilia" blossoms. He was covered with a red blanket, his head placed on a white pillow.

The coffin was presented in a room of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, a mausoleum where the embalmed body of his father -- national founder Kim Il-sung -- has been on display in a glass sarcophagus since his death in 1994.

Kim Jong-un, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's youngest known son and successor, visits the body of his father at a memorial palace in Pyongyang on Tuesday. (Korean Central TV/Associated Press))

Kim Jong-un entered the room to view his father as solemn music played, state media said. He observed a moment of silence, and then circled the bier, followed by other officials.

Kim Jong-il died of a massive heart attack on Saturday caused by overwork and stress, according to the North's media. He was 69 -- though some experts question the official accounts of his birth date and location.

Although there were no signs of unrest or discord in Pyongyang's somber streets, Kim's death and the possibility of a power struggle in a country pursuing nuclear weapons and known for its secrecy and unpredictability have heightened tensions in the region.

Flags at half-staff

With the country in an 11-day period of official mourning, flags were flown at half-staff at all military units, factories, businesses, farms and public buildings. The streets of Pyongyang were quiet, but throngs of people gathered at landmarks honoring Kim, AP video footage from Pyongyang showed.

Condolences offered

South Korea offered condolences Tuesday to North Korea's people as they mourn the death of longtime ruler Kim Jong-il and said it would allow the families of prominent South Koreans with ties to the North to visit.

Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik told reporters in Seoul that no official delegation will travel from Seoul to Pyongyang to pay respects. 

Yu said the government will allow visits to the North by the families of former liberal President Kim Dae-jung, who held a landmark summit with Kim Jong-il in 2000, and former Hyundai Asan chairman Chung Mong-hun, who had business ties with North Korea.

The state funeral is to be held at the Kamsusan Memorial Palace on Dec. 28.

North Korean officials say they will not invite foreign delegations and will allow no entertainment during the mourning period.

North Korean state media have given clear indications that Kim Jong Un will succeed his father.

Since Kim's death they have stepped up their lavish praise of the son, indicating an effort to strengthen a cult of personality around him similar to that of his father and -- much more strongly -- of Kim Il-sung.

The Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday described Kim Jong-un as "a great person born of heaven," a propaganda term previously used only for his father and grandfather. The Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers' Party, added in an editorial that Kim Jong-un is "the spiritual pillar and the lighthouse of hope" for the military and the people.

It described the twenty-something Kim as "born of Mount Paektu," one of Korea's most cherished sites and Kim Jong-il's official birthplace. On Monday, the North said in a dispatch that the people and the military "have pledged to uphold the leadership of comrade Kim Jong-un" and called him a "great successor" of the country's revolutionary philosophy of juche, or self reliance.

Questions over succession

Young Koreans, the North reported, "are burning with the faith and will to remain loyal to Kim Jong-un."

"Under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, we youths will creditably take over the baton of revolution and successfully accomplish the revolutionary cause of juche pioneered by President Kim Il-sung and led to victory by Kim Jong-il," Kan Ok Ryon, 26, was quoted by the Korean Central News Agency as saying.

But concerns remain over whether the transition will be a smooth one.

Soon after the death was announced Monday, President Barack Obama agreed by phone with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to closely monitor developments. Japan's government also said it was being vigilant for any "unexpected developments."

South Korea's military was put on high alert, and experts warned that the next few days could be a crucial turning point for the North, which though impoverished by economic mismanagement and repeated famine, has a relatively well-supported, 1.2 million-strong armed forces.

South Korea offered condolences to the North Korean people, but the government said no official delegation will be traveling from Seoul to Pyongyang to pay their respects.

Kim Jong-il was in power for 17 years after the death of his father, and was groomed for power years before that. Kim Jong-un only emerged as the likely heir over the past year.