Trains stopped running. Markets closed. In at least one city, officials urged people to get off the streets and soldiers were everywhere.
It is rarely easy to find out what’s happening inside North Korea. On the cold Monday when officials announced the death of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, the few reports trickling out of the country indicated that the country of 24 million people shut down for a time.
No signs of unrest were reported. But faced with making the transition to Kim’s largely untested young son, the power structure appeared to be taking no chances. The preparations started hours before veteran state television newscaster Lee Chun Hee, dressed in black and shedding a tear, broke the news.
Just after midnight, uniformed guards received emergency orders to close the border with China, according to a Seoul-based online newspaper that covers North Korea. Regular two-man patrols were increased to four soldiers each.
After first light, soldiers massed in the border city of Musan, across the frigid Tumen River from China, a gathering spot for would-be defectors. They chased away the unsanctioned traders in the city’s marketplace.
“North Korean authorities took steps to avert civilian unrest and potential mass defection attempts by shutting down the border and reinforcing patrols prior to announcing Kim’s death,” according to a source inside the regime, as quoted by the online publication the Daily NK.
It was late morning when Lee, the same announcer who 17 years earlier told the nation about the death of Kim’s father, North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, stiffly recited the news.
Social controls were quickly imposed. In Musan, soon after the public announcement, several loud siren blasts were heard. Then officers and agents from the regime’s National Security Agency and People’s Safety Ministry urged everyone on the street to return to their homes.
“They wouldn’t even let the children come out of the house,” the Daily NK, an anti-regime publication, quoted its source as saying, adding that armed soldiers were positioned 12 feet apart across much of the town. “Citizens are being extra careful in their speech and actions.”
Anyone who makes the wrong offhand comment or gesture during the state-mandated national mourning period that lasts until Kim’s funeral in Pyongyang on Dec. 28, “gets sent to somewhere you can’t return from.”
For a time, trains reportedly stopped running. There were no public appearances by party officials, including Kim Jong Un, the late leader’s youngest son and handpicked successor.
In announcing the date of Kim’s funeral, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported that foreign ambassadors would be forbidden to attend the event.
An official at the Seoul embassy of a nation with a mission in Pyongyang said it was impossible to reach colleagues there Monday, suggesting that the regime had tried to block links with the outside world.
“There hasn’t been anything coming out of Pyongyang,” said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “It’s not surprising the land lines and other communication is overloaded or shut down.”
In South Korea, defector groups were also unsuccessful in reaching contacts north of the demilitarized zone. “The North is refusing to accept any foreign guests because the world is watching and will try to analyze the regime’s next move by what kinds of guests come to pay respects,” said Sohn Jung-hoon, director of the North Korean Defectors’ Vision Network.
As the news spread Monday, people who ventured into the streets were in shock, according to North Korean media, which broadcast images of wailing citizens. A Chinese news network showed one Pyongyang resident who was unable to hold back his tears. “How can I put into words the sorrow I feel? I cannot go on,” he said.
Yet analysts in Seoul said they expected the outpouring of grief will be much less than it was for Kim’s father. North Koreans have faced severe food shortages and other deprivations, and many silently blame the “Dear Leader,” said Lee Dong-bak, a former South Korean negotiator with the North.
“There will be formal functions to see Kim off, but how much actual remorse, that’s a matter of uncertainty,” Lee said.
Choi Kang, another former South Korean negotiator, said that the regime would ensure an outpouring of grief. “People won’t be silent; they’re going to come out in force to show their attachment to Kim Jong Il,” he said. “They’ll go to the statues and cry. They’ll compete with one another to show the most grief, to demonstrate their loyalty to the leadership.”
By afternoon, state-controlled media were reporting that state officials and the military were rallying behind Kim Jong Un, and urged all North Koreans to do the same. The reports called him a “great successor” to his father.
As the nation’s first day without Kim Jong Il drew to a close, North Korea test-fired a short-range missile toward its southern neighbor. U.S. and South Korean officials said the launch appeared to be routine. But it was an indication of North Korea’s continued belligerence toward the outside world.
Jung-yoon Choi in The Times’ Seoul bureau contributed to this report.