In North Korea, Lavish Praise For The Heir Apparent

Dec 20, 2011
Originally published on December 20, 2011 7:54 pm

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 Tuesday 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 Songs' sister, Song Hye Rang, who had 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 hit man. 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 has 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 has 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 under way.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The body of Kim Jong-il, the deceased leader of North Korea, now lies in state in the capitol, Pyongyang. His sudden death has raised concerns about possible power struggles, but so far, all outward signs suggest that the North Korean leadership is lining up behind his son, Kim Jong-un.

NPR is Louisa Lim is following the story from Seoul, South Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: North Korean state-run television today showed the first glimpse, since his father's death, of the man who inherits the mantle of power. Kim Jong-un looked as serious as the paid his respects, bowing to his father's body, which has been laid out in a glass coffin surrounded by flowers.

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

PROFESSOR PAIK HAK-SOON: This is Kim Jong's heir. Kim Jong has been supported by the chief power holders in North Korea. There is no sign that there is any serious power struggle among his entourage at the moment.

LIM: That's Paik Hak-soon from the Sejong Institute, who says this transition of power has been carefully choreographed.

HAK-SOON: The official announcement of the obituary was made two days after actual death of Kim Jong-il. What happened in those two days? During those two past days, the key power-holders in North Korea has agreed to support Kim Jong-un as the new leader of North Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASS MOURNING)

LIM: And there are likely other factors at play to, like ensuring the right reaction from the people, namely that these displays of mass mourning, which continued for a second day. That's the view of Jerome Sauvage, the United Nations coordinator in North Korea, on the line from Pyongyang.

JEROME SAUVAGE: And that explains the announcement on a Monday, so that everyone would be in their respective work units. 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 confines of their work units.

LIM: Such outward exhibitions of grief lie in stark contrast to the reactions 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 his sister, Song Hye-rim, then a famous actress who was already married. She became pregnant with Kim's first son Kim Jon-nam. But she fell out of favor with Kim, who took on other wives. Song Hye-rim ended up living in Moscow, where she became very depressed.

SONG IL KI: (Through Translator) At first, he was pretty good and provided money for living expenses and bought her a Mercedes-Benz. 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.

LIM: Song Il Ki visited his sister in Moscow, but even there they could never talk openly, since she was so carefully monitored. She died in 2002. There was another family tragedy, too: A nephew of his who defected to the South and was assassinated by a North Korean hit man. Song Il Ki doesn't mince with words when asked how he feels about Kim Jong-il.

KI: (Through Translator) Kim Jong-il is not a human being. His father was a dictator and killed so many people. Then he was another dictator and now he wants to extend his dictatorship.

LIM: But Song's been numbed by his family ordeals and he has no reaction to Kim's death.

KI: (Through Translator) I don't feel anything. I no longer feel sorrow or pleasure. I don't have emotions like that. I feel numb.

LIM: But Kim Jong-il's era is now clearly over and analysts in the South are now looking ahead. John Delury from Yonsei University, says power is likely to be vested in a new leadership group with Kim Jong-un as its public face.

PROFESSOR JOHN DELURY: I've attended many of these conferences on contingency scenarios for North Korea. It always hinges 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 going to have to deal with that reality, and hope we can do better dealing with that reality than we did dealing with the Kim Jong-il era.

LIM: The hard questions lie ahead; 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.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.