Seoul: NKorea raises security, has troops on alert
PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea has tightened internal security and put troops on alert since the announcement of leader Kim Jong Il’s death as it moves to consolidate power behind his young son and heir, South Korean intelligence indicated Wednesday.
Concerns over what will happen next in the unpredictable communist enclave — which has a 1.2-million troop military, advanced ballistic missiles and a nuclear weapons development program — have sharply raised tensions around northeast Asia.
Kim Jong Il ruled the country for 17 years after inheriting power from his father, national founder and North Korean hero Kim Il Sung. His chosen heir — Kim Jong Un — only entered the public view last year and remains a mystery to most of the world.
But South Korean parliament member Kwon Young-se said Seoul’s National Intelligence Service believes the North is now concentrating on consolidating Kim Jong Un’s power and that the country has placed its troops on alert since Kim Jong Il’s death.
North Korea on Monday announced Kim, 69, died of a massive heart attack.
Kwon said the NIS has told the parliamentary intelligence committee, which he chairs, that senior military officials have pledged allegiance to Kim Jong Un, but police security has been tightened in major cities across the country. Officials in Seoul say they have not seen any unusual military troop movements.
Initial indications coming out of North Korea suggest the transition to Kim Jong Un was moving forward.
The young Kim, who is still in his twenties, led a procession of senior officials Tuesday in a viewing of Kim Jong Il’s body, which is being displayed in a glass coffin near that of Kim Il Sung.
Publicly presiding over the funeral proceedings was an important milestone for Kim’s son, strengthening his image as the country’s political face at home and abroad.
State media said Kim Jong Un also received mourners, including foreign envoys, in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace as he stood with a “guard of honor by the sides of the bier together with members of the National funeral Committee.”
The report in KCNA did not specify which foreign countries the envoys represented.
According to official media, more than five million North Koreans have gathered at monuments and memorials in the capital since the death of Kim Jong Il. Hundreds of thousands visited monuments around the city within hours of the official announcement that Kim had died over the weekend.
The North has declared an 11-day period of mourning that will culminate in his state funeral and processions through the capital on Dec. 28-29.
In a dreamlike scene captured by Associated Press Television News, Kim’s coffin appeared to float on a raft of “kimjongilia” — the flowers named after him — with his head and shoulders bathed in a spotlight as solemn music played. Various medals and honors were displayed at his feet.
The bier was located in a hall of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, a mausoleum where the embalmed body of Kim Jong Il’s father and North Korean founder Kim Il Sung has been on view in a glass sarcophagus since his death in 1994. Kim Jong Un wore a black Mao-style suit, his hair cropped closely on the sides but longer on top, as he walked with much older officials in suits and military uniforms.
In a move likely to anger the North, South Korean activists and defectors launched giant balloons containing tens of thousands of propaganda leaflets across the border on Wednesday. North Korea has previously warned it would fire at South Korea in response to such actions.
There were no reports of retaliation.
South Korea has put its military on alert and Japan has ordered extra vigilance from its coast guard. President Barack Obama has been in close contact with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, and has reassured them that Washington will stand by its allies.
China, meanwhile, appears ready to deal with Kim Jong Un.
President Hu Jintao offered his condolences at North Korea’s embassy in Beijing on Tuesday as the government hinted at an early invitation for a visit by Kim Jong Un.
China’s response to Kim Jong Il’s death highlights the government’s growing emphasis on North Korean ties despite its annoyance at the North’s refusal to reform its listless economy and its recurring provocative acts against South Korea that raise tensions in the region.
But how much clout Beijing carries isn’t clear.
“China’s influence on North Korea is often overstated,” said David Reeths, a senior adviser with IHS Jane’s Consulting. “While it’s true that China is their most important ally and patron, North Korea remains fiercely independent and harbors tremendous suspicion about China’s ultimate aims. ... China’s ability to react decisively and coherently to fast moving events may also be hampered by their own ongoing generational change in leadership.”
Whether the younger Kim would depart from his father’s political approach also remains a mystery.
Unlike Kim Jong Il, who had 20 years of political grooming under his charismatic father, Kim Jong Un only emerged publicly as Kim’s heir about a year ago. Very little is known about him — even his age isn’t certain, although he is believed to be 27.
South Korean’s Unification Ministry spokesman Choi Bo-seon said it is Seoul’s understanding that Pyongyang is trying to raise the image of Kim Jong Un as next leader through developing a personality cult and that the North is seeking to unite the country by repeatedly touting Kim Jong Il’s feats and showing dramatic scenes of mourning and grief.
The U.S. State Department said late Tuesday that further discussions were needed to assess food needs and on monitoring aid, which would be possible only after the 11-day official mourning period for Kim ends.
“We’re going to have to keep talking about this, and given the mourning period, frankly, we don’t think we’ll be able to have much more clarity and resolve these issues before the New Year,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news conference.
Reported from Pyongyang by Associated Press Television News senior video journalist Rafael Wober. Associated Press writers Foster Klug, Hyung-jin Kim, Sam Kim and Eric Talmadge in Seoul, as well as Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee, contributed to this story.