North Koreans mourn death of ‘Dear Leader’

North Koreans mourn death of ‘Dear Leader’

PYONGYANG, North Korea
North Koreans mourn death of ‘Dear Leader’

Kim Jong-il (front L) and his son Kim Jong-un (R) talk in this file photo. North Korean women (inset) cry after learning of the death of their leader. The government says that no entertainment will be allowed during a 10-day mourning period. REUTERS photo

North Korea announced the death of supreme leader Kim Jong-il and urged its people to rally behind his young son and heir-apparent yesterday, while the world watched for signs of instability in a nation pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

People on the streets of the North Korean capital Pyongyang broke into tears as they learned the news that their “dear general” had died Dec. 17 at the age of 69 of heart failure while carrying out official duties on a train journey. In a “special broadcast” yesterday, state media said Kim died on a train due to a “great mental and physical strain” during a “high intensity field inspection,” the Associated Press reported. An autopsy was conducted Dec. 18 and “fully confirmed” the diagnosis. “He passed away too suddenly to our profound regret,” said a statement carried by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency. 

North Korea said it would place Kim’s body in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang and his funeral would take place Dec. 28. No entertainment will be allowed during a 10-day mourning period and the country will accept no “foreign delegations hoping to express condolences.”

Fear of flying

Kim, who reputedly had a taste for cigars, cognac and gourmet cuisine, is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008 but had appeared relatively vigorous in photos and videos from recent trips to China and Russia and in numerous trips around the country documented by state media. Kim was said to have cultivated wide interests, including professional basketball, cars and foreign films. He reportedly produced several North Korean films as well, mostly historical epics with an ideological tinge. Kim rarely traveled abroad and then only by train because of an alleged fear of flying, once heading all the way to Moscow by luxury rail car, indulging in his taste for fine food along the way.

When he was mentioned in North Korean media and publications, he was not simply addressed by name. The titles, which numbered more than 50, were developed by the Workers’ Party of Korea, the country’s governing party.

His longtime pursuit of nuclear weapons and his military’s repeated threats to South Korea and the U.S. stoked worries that fighting might break out again on the Korean peninsula or that North Korea might provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorist movements. Kim also sought to build up the country’s nuclear arms arsenal, leading to North Korea’s first nuclear test, an underground blast conducted in October 2006. Another test came in 2009, prompting U.N. sanctions.

Kim Jong-il took power after his father, revered North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, died in 1994. He unveiled his third son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor in September 2010. Kim Jong-un was made a four-star general and given senior ruling party posts despite lacking any military experience. It was only then state media published his first-ever adult photograph, an image of an overweight young man dressed in a dark Mao-type suit sitting in a lineup of top Communist party officials. Since his elevation, Kim Jong-un had been constantly at his father’s side and is said to be actively involved in state affairs.

International reaction

A North Korean dispatch said 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 self reliance. South Korea put its military on high alert as it faces North Korea’s 1.2 million-strong armed forces, and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed by phone with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to closely monitor developments and cooperate. China, North Korea’s closest ally and biggest trading partner, said it was “distressed” to hear the news of his death.

Britain said yesterday the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il could be a “turning point” for the isolated nation and urged his successor to engage with the international community. “This could be a turning point for North Korea. We hope their new leadership will recognize that engagement with the international community offers the best prospect of improving the lives of ordinary North Korean people,” Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement, Agence France-Presse reported. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sent condolences while France said it was watching the situation in North Korea and hoped the isolated nation’s people would be able to “find freedom.”