Pyongyang, Dec 28: Wailing and clutching at their hearts, tens of thousands of North Koreans lined the snowy streets of Pyongyang on Wednesday as the hearse carrying late leader Kim Jong Il's body wound its way through the capital for a final farewell.
Son and successor Kim Jong Un led the procession, his head bowed against the wind and right arm raised in a salute, from Kumsusan Memorial Palace where his father's body had lain in state. Top military and party officials, including uncle Jang Song Thaek, were also part of the lead group.
The procession was expected to head to the city's main plaza, Kim Il Sung Square, where hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have been paying their respects over the past 10 days. Sobs and wails filled the air as mourners in the front rows, bareheaded in the cold and snow, stamped their feet and cried as the hearse passed by.
Kim Jong Il, who led the nation with an iron fist following his father Kim Il Sung's death in 1994, died of a heart attack Dec. 17 at age 69, according to state media.
Even as North Koreans mourned the loss of the second leader the nation has known, the transition of power to Kim Jong Un was already under way. The young man, who is in late 20s, is already being hailed by state media as the “supreme leader” of the party, state and army.
State media declared the country in the “warm care” of his young son as it extended the Kim family's hold on power to a third generation. Over the past week, state media has bestowed him with new titles, including “great successor,” “supreme leader” and “sagacious leader.”
He is believed to have led a private ceremony earlier Wednesday in the inner sanctum of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace with top military and party officials. A national memorial service will take place at noon Thursday, state media said.
Like his father's in 1994, Kim Jong Il's coffin was wrapped in a red flag. A limousine carrying a huge portrait of a smiling Kim led the procession, and soldiers followed the hearse and lined the streets.
The footage was accompanied by rousing military music. The procession passed by a signboard with a slogan that praised the “revolutionary ideas of Comrade Kim Il Sung,” Kim's father and the country's revered founder. North Korean state media said the memorial route was about 25 miles (40 kilometers) long, though top officials did not walk the entire route.
Walking behind Kim Jong Un was Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law and a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission who is expected to play a crucial role in helping Kim Jong Un take power.
Kim's two other sons, Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chol, have not been spotted.
The young Kim made his public debut just last year with a promotion to four-star general and an appointment as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers' Party.
Heavy snow was falling in Pyongyang, which state media characterized in the early days of mourning as proof that the skies were “grieving” for Kim as well. Footage on state TV showed images of swirling snow, the log cabin in far northern Mount Paektu where Kim is said to have been born and the mountain named after Kim Jong Il, where his name is carved into the rocky face in red.
Earlier, state television also replayed images of missiles being fired and the April 2009 long-range rocket launch that earned North Korea strengthened U.N. sanctions. The U.S., South Korea and other nations called it a test for a missile designed to strike the United States; North Korea said the rocket sent a communications satellite into space.
Even as they mourned his father with dramatic displays of grief at memorials and at Kumsusan, North Korea's officials have pledged their loyalty to his son.
In an essay paying homage to Kim Jong Il on Wednesday, Workers' Party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun said North Korea under his leadership had been “dignified as a country that manufactured and launched artificial satellites and accessed nukes,” referring to the country's nuclear program.
“Thanks to these legacies, we do not worry about the destiny of ourselves and posterity at this time of national mourning,” the essay said, carried in English by the Korean Central News Agency.
“Supreme leader of our party and people Kim Jong Un takes warm care of the people left by Kim Jong Il. Every moment of Kim Jong Un's life is replete with loving care and solicitude for the people,” the essay said.
Wednesday's procession had a stronger military presence than in 1994.
Kim Jong Il, who ushered in a “military first” era when he took power, celebrated major occasions with lavish, meticulously choreographed parades designed to show off the nation's military might, such as the October 2010 display when he introduced his son to the world.
In the Chinese border city of Dandong, across the Yalu River from North Korea, dozens of people crowded into North Korea's consular offices and into a North Korean restaurant across the street hoping to watch the funeral on television. Many were dressed in black and wore the Kim Il Sung badges common among North Koreans.