This is the second part of a two-part series on the death of Kim Jong Il and the subsequent to rise to power of Kim Jong Un. Read part one here.
Everyone who studies North Korea remembers where they were when they learned Kim Jong Il had died. I remember that on December 18 I was talking to a South Korean friend, and jokingly told her “well, we can’t predict the future. For example, Kim Jong Il may die tomorrow.” The next day, just after noon, I got a message from her: “Kim Jong Il died. Just as you said, Fyodor.”
It was a day of great contrast: for people who studied the North, it seemed like the dawn of the new age, while for most people it was just Monday. I remember that I heard the word “Kim Jong Il” only once on streets of Seoul that day.
It was a big surprise for the South Korean media, too, as they received the news immediately after the noon broadcast. MBC, for example, began its broadcast with coverage of SK Group President Choe Tae-won being summoned to the prosecutor’s office. 42 seconds into the report, the channel announced “Chairman Kim Jong Il of North Korea is dead” and then had to throw everything into coverage of his death.
They did a superb job, immediately adjusting to the sensational news. The same day they already composed a report from South Korean islands in the Yellow Sea (people were slightly nervous, but the atmosphere was calm) and from the Kaesong Industrial Complex (some shocked workers left their workplaces after the announcement, but many others stayed).
In North Korea, the news seemingly came amid an atmosphere of unnatural calmness. Although the state television preferred to show crying people, North Koreans I talked to about the day said that after the announcement they mostly observed a brief silence before going back to their lives.
The DPRK lowered flags across the country – including the one on the inter-Korean border. DPRK embassies soon followed. Chinese sellers in Dandong, a city bordering the country, mobilized to sell flowers to North Koreans, expecting them to go home soon, but no such order followed, leaving demand for flowers quite low.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak, who learned about Kim Jong Il’s death from his adviser Chon Yong-u, and whose 70th birthday schedule was completely wrecked by the news, convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council. The National Army immediately went on full alert. Some analysts in South Korea expressed their hopes for a better future for the North.
On December 20, North Korean newspapers came out: with Kim Jong Il’s portrait on the front page
Reaction from both China and the United States was relatively scarce – it seemed that both Hu Jintao and Barack Obama also learned the news at that very day. The DPRK state showed screenshots of TV channels across the world reporting about Kim’s death. Normally they picked the largest, but in case of the United States, for some reason, it was not CNN, but ABC News.
KIM’S DEATH IN PRINT
On December 20, North Korean newspapers came out: with Kim Jong Il’s portrait on the front page. The second page was dedicated to the official statement, read by Ri Chung Hee the previous day.
The third page listed the members of the funeral committee and showed a medical report about his death: he had suffered a cardiac infarction and had died from a heart attack.
The third page also listed the decision of the funeral committee to preserve Kim’s body in the Kumsusan memorial palace, to hold a period of mourning from December 17 (notably, it started retroactively) to December 29.
The funeral was to be held on December 28. Three minutes of silence were to be observed during the event, with no foreign mourners allowed to participate.
All this – including even the death from a heart attack – perfectly mirrored the coverage of the death of Kim Il Sung on July 9, 1994. Like father, like son.
THE MOURNING PERIOD
One of the first orders which came after Kim Jong Il’s death was to close the marketplaces. The ban did not last long, as on December 21 some of the traders were already back to business and on December 25 the marketplaces were completely reopened. The prices, notably, remained the same, as if nothing had happened.
During the mourning, the military police were also mobilized to preserve order and the population was ordered not to meet in groups of more than five people.
Reaction from both China and the United States was relatively scarce
By that time, the DPRK still had comparatively few statues of Kim Jong Il, so authorities were puzzled as to where to conduct mourning events. Usually a statue of Kim Il Sung or a Pillar of Eternal Life dedicated to him was chosen as a substitute, but, for example, in Hoeryong, people met around Kim Jong Suk’s statue.
On December 25, the government the ordered the people to write letters of loyalty to Kim Jong Un, similar to campaigns that had existed since at least the 1970s.
THE BODY LIES IN STATE
The body of the Great Marshal was dressed in civilian clothes and covered with a simple red flag. In two days, his face was cosmetically altered to remove a black stain from his cheek – possibly skin cancer, so that his body would look more aesthetically pleasing. The corpse was seemingly already prepared for preservation, while later a team of specialists from Moscow were summoned to Pyongyang to finalize the process.
The head of Kim Jong Il lay on a pillow marked with an unusual symbol, not bearing a resemblance to anything North Korean. Notably, a similar, if not identical pillow was used during Kim Il Sung’s funeral in 1994. The coffin was surrounded by Kimjongilias – flowers named after the now-late Great Commander.
The entire process mirrored the funeral of Kim Il Sung – creating a sense of equality between the two.
The ceremony was attended by the country’s top officials, as well as by several members of the Kim family. Kim Jong Il’s last wife, Kim Ok, was there (there were reports that a few years later she was sent to a concentration camp with her family). Kim Jong Il’s daughter Yo Jong, was also one of the guests, while neither sons Kim Jong Nam or Kim Jong Chol were seen at the ceremony.
While the leader’s oldest had been something of an outcast in the family long before he was murdered in 2017, Jong Chol likely did not show up as his presence may have cast a shadow of doubt on the position of his younger brother.
Interestingly, the ban on “foreigners” did not extend to South Koreans, as the DPRK does not recognize the ROK as an independent nation. The late President Kim Dae-jung’s widow Lee Hui-ho and Hyundai Group President Hyon Jong-un visited Pyongyang to offer their condolences. The South Korean government sent no delegation of its own, and several members of pro-North Korean organizations did, without clearing it with the Ministry of Unification.
The military police were also mobilized to preserve order
SPEED BUILDING THE CULT
State media faced a problem now, however: by the time of Kim Jong Il’s death, Kim Jong Un had almost no established personality cult. This had to be rectified quickly.
On December 20 Rodong Sinmun spelled Kim Jong Un’s name in ordinary script in the message of the second page, while the country’s second newspaper – the Minju Choson – used special bold spelling previously reserved only for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Since the latter comes out slightly later than the Rodong, we can surmise that someone issued an order to alter the spelling late in the morning on December 20.
An article on page 5 on the same day stated that the “revolutionary great deeds of Juche” would be continued by the Paektu bloodline (백두혈통). Kim Jong Un was called “great” and once again named his father’s successor.
Another problem was that Kim’s first official title – “Young General” (청년 대장) – was unimpressive. It had been quietly taken out of circulation, being replaced by “Respected Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission Kim Jong Un” (존경하는 김정은 군사위부위원장) and then “Respected Comarade Kim Jong Un” (존경하는 김정은 동지). This also was not good enough, and the DPRK started to improvise.
As of December 24, Kim was still merely a “Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission” (조선로동당 중앙군사위원회 부위원장). The next day, he also became “The Supreme Leader of our Revolutionary Armed Forces” (우리 혁명 무력의 최고령도자). On December 27, he became the “Highly Gifted Leader of our Party, State and the Army” (우리 당과 국가, 군대의 영명한 령도자) and on the December 28 he finally got his permanent title – “the Supreme Leader of our Party, State and the Army” (우리 당과 국가, 군대의 최고령도자).
It is interesting that the title “Supreme Leader,” which is now used as a standard, first appeared in letters of condolences signed by Hannu Harju, the leader of the Finnish Communist Workers’ Party – For Peace and Socialism, and Wahid Al-Uksori, the leader the Egyptian Arab Socialist Party, and it is possible that the DPRK picked up the title from them. Given that both parties are extremely marginal, this may be the most prominent political achievement of Harju and Al-Uksori in their entire political careers.
Another ideological problem the country faced was that of Kim Jong Un’s mother Ko Yong Hui. The biography of a Japanese-born actress was not befitting of the mother of the Supreme Leader – and the DPRK leadership stopped any campaigns related to her several days after Kim Jong Il’s death.
Finally, a new leader needed a new song. It take time to compose a good poem and for the first days the DPRK promoted a poem named “People, we have General Kim Jong Un” (인민이여 우리에겐 김정은대장이 계신다), composed by the literature faculty of Kim Il Sung University. The poem was not great, and soon went into obscurity.
On December 26, a new slogan appeared: “Let us defend respected comrade Kim Jong Un with our lives!” It seems that it later became the basis for the similarly named song, which is now the main hymn in Kim Jong Un’s honor in North Korea.
One trait of the personality cult in the DPRK is that the propaganda sometimes suggests that the Kims possess (or, in some milder versions, are rumored to possess) supernatural powers. There is a song called “Commander uses warp” (장군님은 축지법을 쓰신다), which speaks about Kim Jong Il teleporting and flying across the frontline while sitting on a cloud. There are stories about Kim managing to open the door of a broken tractor despite no one being capable of it before and after.
The Rodong Sinmun published similar reports about Kim Jong Il’s death. Apparently, stated the organ of the Workers’ Party, there were unusual tremors on Paektu mountain from December 16 to 19 and on December 19, there was a red sunset as “nature hoisted a red flag” in honor of the Great Commander. The Sacred Mountain of the Revolution had actually started to tremble before the demise of the Beloved Marshal – but this small nuance remained unmentioned.
Furthermore, it had snowed on a bright day from December 18 to December 19 (allegedly, the locals explained this as Kim Jong Il being sent to the heavens) and there were reports about a hawk sitting three times on a statue of Kim Il Sung before flying in the direction of Pyongyang, as well as crying owls and cranes.
Understandably, the Rodong Sinmun reported nothing on the goings-on at Vyatskoye village, Russia: where Kim Jong Il was actually born. For those interested, on December 17, it was actually slightly warmer there than it had been the day before.
A new leader needed a new song
UNCLE JANG STEPS UP
Apart from Ri Yong Ho, another figure to rise in late December was Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song Thaek. On December 25, he suddenly appeared in a uniform of a four-star ground force general, which immediately led to speculation that he had become the country’s second-in-command.
This raises a question: though promotions to Vice-Marshal and above are normally done on the orders of the Central Military Commission, a promotion from one to four-star general requires the order of the Supreme Commander – and, as of December 25, the DPRK did not have a Supreme Commander, as Kim Jong Il was dead and Kim Jong Un was not appointed to the position.
This leaves us with the mystery how this promotion was actually carried out. Possibly there was an order from the National Defence Commission and/or the Central Ministry Commission of the Party, but in any case, it was a breach of tradition and the sombre morning atmosphere.
Jang becoming a general was the only promotion to take place during the official mourning period and, notably, it was not mentioned in Jang’s official biography in the Rodong Sinmun in April 2012, published after he became a member of the Politburo.
THE EIGHT MORTALS
The funeral ceremony began December 28. Kim Jong Il’s body was placed in a coffin draped in the flag of the Workers’ Party and placed in a Lincoln Continental Limousine-1976 hearse, the same model used during Kim Il Sung’s funeral.
The car was accompanied by eight officials as it slowly moved across Pyongyang – from the memorial palace and back. Four to the right, starting with Kim Jong Un, wore civilian uniform, while four to the left wore military uniforms. The following scheme shows the composition:
|Kim Jong Un
|The coffin||Ri Yong Ho
Chief of General Staff
|Jang Song Thaek
Vice-Chairman of the NDC
|Kim Yong Chun
Minister of the People’s Armed Forces
|Kim Ki Nam
|Kim Jong Gak
First Deputy Chief of the Main Political Department
|Choe Thae Bok
|U Tong Chuk
First Deputy Chief of the Department of State Security
One may notice that the list of the officials was notably different from that at the funeral. Kim Yong Nam and Choe Yong Rim were not included, instead, the DPRK version of the “Eight Elders” appeared to be the men who really ran the country.
Given that by that time both the positions of Chief of the Main Political Department and Chief of the Department of State Security were vacant, all three heads of the army and the chief of the secret police were present – as were most the powerful representatives of the state and of the Party.
So what was the later fate of the men who walked alongside Kim?
Ri Yong Ho and Jang Song Thaek were purged. Kim Yong Chun retired and was promoted to Marshal in 2016. Kim Ki Nam has led the Propaganda department since 2016. Kim Jong Gak became President of the Kim Il Sung Military University in 2013 and was demoted from a Politburo member to a Central Committee member in 2016. Choe Thae Bok, on the other hand, got promoted to the Politburo at the same time. U Tong Chuk has not been mentioned in DPRK press since 2012 – he was either retired or been purged.
Out of seven, then: two purged, two promoted, one retired, one demoted, and the fate of another one is unknown. The common thing about all is that none have become “number two” in the country or received a significant or independent position.
The car was accompanied by eight officials as it slowly moved across Pyongyang
Kim Jong Un is left with all the power.
After Kim Jong Il’s body was brought back to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace – renamed, at the funeral, to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. The late Kim was praised for making the country a nuclear power and the population was instructed to follow his son.
Posthumously, Kim Jong Il received an Order of the Hero of the DPRK (his fourth), and, later in 2012, a Kim Il Sung order and the rank of Generalissimo.
THE STRANGE WILL
The mourning ended on December 29. On its final day, Kim Jong Un reportedly issued one of his first political orders, reinstating family responsibility for fleeing the country.
“If someone defects, exterminate his family up to the third generation,” instructed the Supreme Leader. Although such a cruel policy was seemingly reversed later, Kim Jong Un has proven himself to take the question of escapees much more seriously than his father did.
On the next day, Kim Jong Un was immediately appointed the Supreme Commander by the decision of the Politburo, of which, ironically enough, he still was not a member.
Kim Jong Un is left with all the power
The message about the event was somewhat odd:
The Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the WPK respected comrade Kim Jong Un was highly venerated as the Supreme Commander of the KPA.
According to the will of the Great Leader respected comrade Kim Jong Il expressed at October 8, Juche 100 (2011), the Beloved and respected comrade Kim Jong Un, the Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the WPK, was highly venerated as the Supreme Commander of the KPA.
The “will expressed on October 8, Juche 100 (2011)” is a strange addition, as such a will has never been mentioned in open documents before or after the appointment.
October 8 was the anniversary of Kim Jong Il being appointed the General Secretary in 1997, his first formal position after his father’s death. Notably, no celebration of it took place in 2011.
We do not know what event took place on this day, but it is quite likely that it was real – otherwise, the “will of Kim Jong Il” would have probably being referenced without a date. It is quite likely that at the meeting someone quoted Kim’s statement from October 8 and suggested that Kim Jong Un should be appointed a Supreme Commander – and thus this unusual formula ended up in news.
What was it about? A glimpse of decorations displayed in front of Kim Jong Il’s coffin can provide us with an insight.
One can see two shoulder insignia in the center. DPRK news reported that these were the insignia of the Marshal of the DPRK – the rank Kim Jong Il had held since 1992.
This, however, was wrong. As one can see from below, these were the insignia of the Generalissimo. The difference is small – half-wreath vs full wreath surrounding the star, but is clearly notable.
|Insignia of the Marshal of the DPRK||Insignia of the Generalissimo of the DPRK|
Thus we may suppose that Kim Jong Il’s promotion to Generalissimo (which actually happened post-mortem on February 14, 2012) was already planned in 2011. This would have mirrored Kim Il Sung’s own path: the father is promoted to Generalissimo on his jubilee, while the son becomes a Supreme Commander and a Marshal.
This brings us to an interesting note. Kim Jong Il was born in 1941, but he later altered it to 1942 – to create a good-looking 30-year gap with his father. The distortion of his own biography backfired: if he had not started playing with history, he would have been officially 70 years old in 2011 and could have enjoyed his promotion to Generalissimo while still being alive.
BACK TO WORK
The funeral was complete and the DPRK started to move back into regular political life, which included criticism of South Korea. On the final day of the year, the National Defence Commission released a message attacking Seoul for not mourning with the North.
“The world will see how ten million military men and civilians, united under the Great Leader respected comrade Kim Jong Un, will change the sorrow into boldness, the tears into strength and will achieve the final victory,” ended the message.
In the message, Kim Jong Un was referred to with Kim Jong Il’s old title: the Great Leader (위대한 령도자), suggesting he was equal to him even on a symbolical level.
He still had to formally appoint himself to lead the Party and the state, but in practice, he had been the king since Ri Chung Hee announced as the successor on December 19.
Looking back at first days of Kim Jong Un’s rule, we can see many of trends already begin to emerge. He was proclaimed his father’s successor – and he has held absolute authority ever since, meaning that rumors about him being controlled by subordinates were likely nonsense from the very beginning.
Kim Jong Un showed his softer attitude to marketplaces, having them reopened even before the mourning was over – and later his government has implemented relatively successful economic decentralization measures. He has also shown a tougher attitude to people fleeing the country – and his rule has seen numerous crackdown on these attempts.
Two ambitious men – Jang Song Thaek and Ri Yong Ho – clearly exposed themselves as such during the funeral. Both were later purged.
The report on the decision to suspend the cult of his mother was almost certainly a correct one – as her cult seems to almost have vanished in the DPRK.
Apart from some unusual patterns in public appearances – like showing his wife to the public, meeting Dennis Rodman, and a die-hard determination to perfect the country’s strategic weaponry – most political and economic trends seems to have been set there, back in late December 2011.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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