Lifestyle & Belief

North Korea embalms Kim Jong Il, hopes for successful transition


North Korea's state TV network broadcasts images of deceased ruler Kim Jong Il on a ceremonial platform.

TOKYO, Japan — Almost a month after his death, Kim Jong Il's transition from revered leader to communist demigod continued on Thursday with the announcement that the former North Korean leader will lie in state.

The decision to put his corpse on permanent display next to that of his father — North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung — is designed to secure his legacy and add legitimacy to his choice of successor, Kim Jong Un.

GlobalPost in-depth series: After Kim Jong Il

Embalming deceased leaders is time-consuming and costly, but inevitable given communist regimes' historical penchant for the messy procedure, which requires the extraction of every drop of blood from the corpse.

At this stage it isn't clear whether the work will be performed by experts from Moscow, who prepared Lenin, Stalin and Ho Chi Minh for posterity, or by North Korean embalmers.

Kim's embalmed form will eventually take its place beside that of his father at the Kumsusan memorial palace in Pyongyang, where mourners lined up to weep as his body lay in state following his death from a heart attack on Dec. 17.

More from GlobalPost: Why the North Koreans weep

"Great leader Kim Jong Il will be preserved to look the same as when he was alive," the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

Publicly displaying his corpse is not just a demonstration of the regime's ghoulish approach to remembrance. Giving Kim a permanent physical presence is a clear expression of the continuity needed to ensure the smooth transition from one generation of the dynasty to the next.

The KNCA reports that posters of a smiling Kim are being erected around the country along with "towers to his immortality." The ruling Korean Workers' Party, meanwhile, has named him "eternal leader," an honor some had believed would only ever apply to this father.

GlobalPost writer Bradley Martin explained the psychology behind the scenes of mass mourning witnessed in Pyongyang in the aftermath of Kim's death. This week, North Korea watchers said they believed the authorities were punishing citizens whose grief lacked the necessary conviction.

The Daily NK, a Seoul-based online newspaper that monitors the North, quoted sources as saying that the authorities were imposing labor camp sentences of at least six months to "anybody who didn't participate in the organized gatherings during the mourning period, or who did participate but didn't cry and didn't seem genuine."