PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea declared Kim Jong Il’s son and successor “supreme leader” of the ruling party, military and the people during a memorial Thursday for his father in the government’s first public endorsement of his leadership.
Kim Jong Un — head bowed and somber in a dark overcoat — stood watching from a balcony at the Grand People’s Study House overlooking Kim Il Sung Square, flanked by the top party and military officials. Also on the balcony was Kim Jong Il’s younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, who is expected to play a guardian role for her young nephew.
Given Kim Jong Un’s inexperience and age — he is in his late 20s — there are questions outside North Korea about whether he is equipped to lead a nation engaged in sensitive negotiations over its nuclear program and grappling with decades of economic hardship and chronic food shortages.
But support among North Korea’s power brokers was unequivocal at the memorial service, attended by hundreds of thousands of people filling Kim Il Sung Square and other plazas in central Pyongyang.
“The fact that he completely resolved the succession matter is Great Comrade Kim Jong Il’s most noble achievement,” Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, told the massive audience at the Kim Il Sung Square.
“Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un is our party, military and country’s supreme leader who inherits great comrade Kim Jong Il’s ideology, leadership, character, virtues, grit and courage,” said Kim, considered North Korea’s ceremonial head of state.
Life in Pyongyang came to a standstill as mourners packed the plaza from the Grand People’s Study to the Taedong River for the second day of funeral ceremonies for the late leader.
Kim Jong Il, who led his 24 million people with absolute power for 17 years, died of a heart attack Dec. 17 at age 69, according to state media. He inherited power from his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, who died of a heart attack in 1994, in what was the communist world’s first hereditary succession.
Attention turned to Kim Jong Un after he was revealed last year as his father’s choice among three sons to carry the Kim dynasty into a third generation.
The process to groom him was rushed compared to the 20 years Kim Jong Il had to prepare to take over from his father, and relied heavily on Kim family legacy as guerrilla fighters and the nation’s founders.
Kim Jong Un was made a four-star general last year and appointed a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party. Since his father’s death, state media have bestowed on him a series of new titles signifying that his succession campaign was gaining momentum: Great Successor, Supreme Leader and Sagacious Leader.
Kim Jong Un’s leadership is not expected to become formal until top party, parliamentary and government representatives convene to confirm his ascension.
He is expected to formally assume command of the 1.2 million-strong military, and become general secretary of the Workers’ Party and chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University in South Korea.
In a speech during the memorial, Gen. Kim Jong Gak, a top political officer in the Korean People’s Army, said the military will dedicate itself to protecting Kim Jong Un, calling him the “supreme leader of our revolutionary armed forces.”
This week’s events have been watched closely for clues to who in the military and Workers’ Party will form Kim’s inner circle of trusted aides during the sensitive transition to leadership.
During the mourning period, Kim made at least five visits to his father’s begonia-bedecked bier when the late leader was lying in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, accompanied at times by the old guard that is expected to support him.
At Wednesday’s funeral procession, he was accompanied by Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law and a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, who has family ties to the military and is expected to be crucial in giving his nephew guidance.
On Thursday, North Koreans packed the main square as well as the plaza in front of a Workers’ Party monument of a hammer, sickle and writing brush.
They bowed their heads as eight artillery guns fired; military officers removed their hats while the booms resonated across the square.
North Korea’s senior officials, including Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui, stood in silence on the platform during the gun salute.
Workers, citizens, children and soldiers across the country then bowed for three minutes of tribute to Kim Jong Il as trains and boats blew their sirens.
State TV showed people lined up neatly in rows, or outside their places of work, on sidewalks, in squares, beneath giant portraits of Kim Jong Il.
His two other sons, Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chol, were not spotted at either the funeral or memorial.
Associated Press Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee and writers Hyung-jin Kim, Foster Klug and Sam Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report. Follow AP’s North Korea coverage at twitter.com/newsjean, twitter.com/APKlug and twitter.com/samkim_ap.