North Korea Prepares To Bury Kim Jong Il

The funeral of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is expected to begin Tuesday night, East Coast time. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is watching events from South Korea, and speaks to host Robert Siegel from the capital, Seoul.

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North Korea is holding a state funeral today for its late leader Kim Jong Il. The funeral caps days of official mourning since Kim's death of a heart attack on December 17th. The most prominent figure in the proceedings, other than Kim himself, is his third son and heir apparent Kim Jong Un, thought to be in his late-20s. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Seoul, South Korea, where he's been reporting on these events. And Anthony, what's happening at the funeral?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The plan this morning is for a grand ceremony around the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea. The plan is for a 24-gun salute by the military. There will probably be a procession and at the very end of this, the body of Kim Jong Il will go into his father's mausoleum, be embalmed and put beside his father's remains.

SIEGEL: Anthony, you're reporting on this from Seoul, South Korea. Are any South Koreans attending this at all?

KUHN: Actually, not, Robert. The North has made this an internal affair and they have not invited any foreign delegations to attend the funeral ceremony itself. However, they have invited all comers to pay their condolences ahead of the funeral. And the former first lady of South Korea, the widow of former president Kim Dae Jung, who was the architect of the sunshine policy of engagement with North Korea, was invited and did go to pay her condolences and just returned to Seoul after actually meeting with the heir apparent, Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong Un.

SIEGEL: But I gather there are South Koreans who think that there really shouldn't even be any condolences paid to the North Korean leader.

KUHN: That's correct. The two countries are, after all, technically in a state of war. And some people just don't see it as right to pay respects to a dictator who is responsible for what they consider to be acts of aggression against South Korea and the architect of a famine at home that killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.

SIEGEL: Anthony, do we know how much in control of things Kim Jong Un, the heir apparent, actually is?

KUHN: Well, politics in North Korea are notoriously opaque, so it's very hard to tell exactly. What we do know is that over the weekend, the heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, took over major posts at the top of the ruling worker's party and the military. He's had to take them over quickly because he's only been groomed for leadership over the past two years or so, since his father, Kim Jong Il, had a stroke. We know that he is probably not in total control and that for some time, he will be under the tutelage or mentorship of his uncle, Jong Sung Taek, who also, over the weekend, came out wearing a general's uniform, confirming his power.

He sort of came out from the shadows, you might say.

SIEGEL: But there had been some concern that the death of Kim Jong Il might lead to instability in North Korea. That does not seem to have materialized. Why not?

KUHN: It's possible that, you know, this transition has been in progress for two years and that Kim Jong Il was able to purge enough and promote enough officials in order to secure his son's position. Then again, many people point out that we won't really see any infighting or crises until after this mourning period, which could be some time next year.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn, speaking to us from Seoul, South Korea, about the funeral in North Korea today. Anthony, thanks a lot.

KUHN: Thank you, Robert.

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