It was an icy evening, with temperatures below zero, and yet there was no question that they would remove their coats before walking up to the statue of Kim Il Sung. It was what they had been taught, as a sign of respect, and that was exactly what they did on Monday, after a news anchor, choking back the tears, had announced that the "Dear Leader" was dead.
Mothers with children, students, office workers, construction crews -- thousands climbed the wide steps up to the floodlit statue in Pyongyang, many holding white chrysanthemums in their hands. Some of the mourners had come straight from their jobs at collectives, and they were still carrying small backpacks and bags as they walked up the steps.
The mourners silently formed a loose chain along the steps. They were not holding each other's hands, but were simply standing there, some of their faces wet with tears.
A short distance away, a foreigner observed the scene. He had been working in North Korea for several years, but on this evening, he says, he felt like more of a stranger than ever before.
The regime had the country firmly under control, even down to the tears of its citizens. Anyone who was not weeping in North Korea risked incurring the wrath of the authorities. Two Chinese business travelers reported on the Internet that foreigners had been told to get off a train because they had not shed any tears.
The images from Pyongyang matched, down to the last detail, the ritual of mourning that the "Dear Leader" had organized in 1994 after the death of his father, the country's founder Kim Il Sung. The large funeral ceremony next Wednesday will most likely follow a similar pattern. Pyongyang has already announced that foreign delegations are not welcome to attend.
A New Twist in a Cold War
Nevertheless, the world will observe the ceremony with some trepidation. The Cold War continues along the 38th parallel north, which divides Kim's realm from the democratic and economically successful South Korea. A fragile ceasefire has been in effect since the end of the Korean War (1950 to 1953). Every missile test in the North horrifies the world, and every incident in the Yellow Sea, where the maritime border remains in dispute, repeatedly leads to casualties on both sides. The nuclear weapons test that was completed under Kim Jong Il's leadership made him a warmonger in the eyes of the world, and he was dubbed a "Madman with the Bomb".
Since South Korea, tired of the provocations, put an end to its conciliatory approach to the North, the Cold War has become even colder. Only a year ago, in November 2010, the North bombarded the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong. Before that, in March 2010, a North Korean torpedo allegedly sank the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean sailors.
Only 90 minutes after the news broke of Kim Jong Il's death, United States President Barack Obama called his South Korean counterpart and urged him to exercise caution in dealing with Pyongyang. The United States wanted to dissuade its ally from taking any rash steps.
The Americans believe that military provocations from the North are now quite possible, as a show of strength and resolve. North Korea tested another short-range missile on Monday. On the same day, prices plunged on the stock markets in Tokyo and Seoul in reaction to the news of Kim's death.
Little Known about the 'Great Successor'
The man who will now succeed the "Dear Leader" is someone who had never made any public statements until last Monday. The rest of the world doesn't even know whether he is 27, 28 or 29 years old.
There is much speculation over whether the new leader will continue his father's course and preserve his cult of personality, or whether he will reform the country, bringing it closer to the Chinese economic model or even pursuing a soft opening toward the West.
In recent months, Kim's son Jong Un, who the world's youngest nuclear power proclaimed as the "Great Successor" on Monday, was carefully pushed into the collective consciousness, partly through appearances on television. The state-owned television network consistently showed him in the company of his father during Kim Jong Il's personal inspections of companies. In recent weeks, however, Kim Jong Un was also occasionally shown without his father.
Kim Jong Il's youngest son, a product of his relationship with his third companion, a dancer born in Japan, spent some time in the West. He reportedly went to school in Switzerland, on the outskirts of the capital Bern. Although the North Korean Embassy denies this, former fellow pupils are certain that they recognize him in photos.
João Micaelo, 28, now a chef in Vienna, says that he sat next to Kim Jong Un in class, played basketball with him and was his friend. "Jong Un was a quiet boy" who wore Nike tennis shoes and Adidas track suits, and was driven around by a chauffeur, Micaelo told the Swiss magazine L'illustré.
One day, says Micaelo, Jong Un showed him a photo and said: "This is my father. He is the president of North Korea." But Micaelo didn't believe him. Jong Un's English was reportedly very good, and the young son of the North Korean dictator was also enthusiastic about pop culture, drew comics and watched martial arts films starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.
A First Glimpse of Future Leader
These details were kept from the unsuspecting population in North Korea, which only became aware of Jong Un about three years ago. Students in North Korean schools gradually began singing a previously unknown song: "Stomp, stomp, stomp in the footsteps of our General Kim." Kim Jong Il had it composed for his son's ninth birthday, says Kenji Fujimoto, the former dictator's Japanese sushi chef. According to Fujimoto, the father had recognized some of his own traits in the strong-willed Jong Un.
The picture that the chef paints of the future leader of North Korea is also very Western. Fujimoto says that Jong Un often bummed cigarettes from him (he smokes the Yves Saint Laurent brand), drank a lot of vodka and was concerned about North Korea's backwardness. "Our country is technologically behind the rest of Asia," Jong Un allegedly said on a train journey from Wonsan in the southeast to Pyongyang. "All that we can be proud of are our uranium deposits."
Last year, it became increasingly apparent that Jong Un would be appointed to succeed his father. On Jan. 8, 2010, his birthday was declared a national holiday, and in December he was made a four-star general and was accepted into the Central Committee of the Workers' Party. That was when North Koreans got their first glimpse of their future ruler.
The round-faced man sitting there in the front row, wearing a dark Mao suit, resembled his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. Jong Un was named deputy head of the military commission, an important position. The small country has 1.2 million soldiers, one of the world's largest armies.
Nevertheless, Jong Un's political autonomy was and remains limited. His father's sister Kim Kyung Hee, 65, and her husband Chang Song Taek, 65, have become Jong Un's advisors. Chang is the deputy chairman of the National Defense Commission and director of the government development bank. His wife Kim was made a four-star general in September. Both are seen as strong, power-conscious figures within the system. Jong Un will depend on their advice, and possibly their decisions, as well.
Ri Yong Ho, the chief of the general staff, is to ensure that the new leader can depend on the loyalty of the military. A member of the politburo, Ri could also play a key role in the new power structure.