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Report: North Korea puts troops on alert

North Korea's anointed heir Kim Jong Un led a solemn procession of mourners Tuesday to the glass coffin of his father, indicating a smooth leadership transition while the country was under seclusion.
Image:  body of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il lies in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace
In this combination picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency, the body of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il lies in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace (picture on right) as his son Kim Jong Un (thrid from left in left photo) and other officials make a call of condolence Tuesday in Pyongyang.Kcna / Reuters
/ Source: staff and news service reports

North Korea has tightened internal security and put troops on alert since the announcement of leader Kim Jong Il's death as it moves to consolidate power behind his young son and heir, South Korean intelligence indicated Wednesday.

Concerns over what will happen next in the unpredictable communist enclave — which has a 1.2-million troop military, advanced ballistic missiles and a nuclear weapons development program — have sharply raised tensions around northeast Asia.

Kim Jong Il ruled the country for 17 years after inheriting power from his father, national founder and North Korean hero Kim Il Sung. His chosen heir — Kim Jong Un — only entered the public view last year and remains a mystery to most of the world.

But South Korean parliament member Kwon Young-se said Seoul's National Intelligence Service believes the North is now concentrating on consolidating Kim Jong Un's power and that the country has placed its troops on alert since Kim Jong Il's death.

Kwon said the NIS has told the parliamentary intelligence committee, which he chairs, that senior military officials have pledged allegiance to Kim Jong Un, but police security has been tightened in major cities across the country. Officials in Seoul say they have not seen any unusual military troop movements.

Initial indications coming out of North Korea suggest the transition to Kim Jong Un was moving forward.

On Tuesday, North Korea's anointed heir led a solemn procession of mourners to the glass coffin of his father and longtime ruler — a strong indication that a smooth leadership transition was under way in the country known for secrecy and unpredictability.

Weeping members of North Korea's elite filed past the body of Kim Jong Il, which was draped in red cloth and surrounded by stony-faced honor guards and dozens of red and white flowers.

'Lighthouse of hope'
State media fed a budding personality cult around his youngest known son, hailing him as a "lighthouse of hope" as the country was awash in a "sea of tears and grief."

In a dreamlike scene captured by Associated Press Television News, Kim's coffin appeared to float on a raft of "kimjongilia" — the flowers named after him — with his head and shoulders bathed in a spotlight as solemn mustic played. Various medals and honors were displayed at his feet.

The bier was located in a hall of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, a mausoleum where the embalmed body of Kim Jong Il's father and North Korean founder Kim Il Sung has been on view in a glass sarcophagus since his death in 1994.

Kim Jong Il's 27-year-old son and heir, Kim Jong Un, wore a black Mao-style suit, his hair cropped closely on the sides but longer on top, as he walked with much older officials in suits and military uniforms.

Stepping away from the group, Kim Jong Un bowed deeply, his expression serious, before circling the bier with other officials.

North Korea was in seclusion on Tuesday, with the country in an 11-day period of official mourning, flags were at half-staff at all military units, factories, businesses, farms and public buildings.

The streets of Pyongyang were quiet, but throngs gathered at landmarks honoring Kim.

The hermit kingdom closed its border with China for trade and visitors, The Wall Street Journal reported.

State workers were called back from the China side to help focus on Kim's Dec. 28 funeral.

While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged North Korea to follow a "path of peace," diplomats and commentators were struggling to understand what would happen as it transitions from Kim Jong Il's 17-year iron rule to that of his untested son Kim Jong Un, in his late 20s.

North Korean media lauded Kim Jong-il, 69 when he died, as the "Great Father of the People" and reported that he had made several public appearances in the past week.

Pyongyang has said foreign officials will not be invited to the funeral.

Jong-un, the youngest son and successor to the ruling dynasty started by his grandfather, was described as the "eternally immovable mental mainstay of the Korean people" by KCNA, the state news agency.

Few cross border
In a sign the hermit state was sealing itself off from the outside world even more after the "Dear Leader's" death, few people crossed the Dandong border with China. China is the North's only major ally and one of the few states with which it actively trades.

"We can't go in now, because of the death of Kim Jong-il," Yu Lu, a Chinese trader in Dandong who does business with the North, told Reuters. "It's all closed off, and basically all the North Koreans are heading back. It's very tightly closed today."

Chinese business people in Dandong said that while it was still possible to travel across on Tuesday, many canceled trips, fearing the border could be closed.

"We're worried that it could be shut down at any time, because of the mourning activities, and nobody wants to be stuck in North Korea with the border closed," said Yu Lu.

The elder Kim was reported to have died on Saturday of a heart attack, prompting South Korea - with whom the North remains technically at war after a 1953 armistice ended a conflict - to put its forces on full alert.

South Korean media reported that the North test-fired at least one short-range missile on Monday, sparking a fresh round of tension, although government officials in Seoul said they did not necessarily believe the launches were linked to Kim's death.

Seoul was calm on Tuesday, a sunny winter day, and there appeared to be no sense of any crisis.

One Chinese businessman with close links to North Korea, who could not be identified due to the sensitive nature of his relationship with the Pyongyang elite, said that the Wongjong border crossing with Russia was open, but that no one was using it to enter the country.

"(As) many foreigners are leaving as possible," he said.

In Beijing, Chinese President Hu Jintao offered his condolences Tuesday as the government hinted at an early invitation for a visit by his son and successor.

Surrounded by scores of security officers, Hu made an early morning trip to North Korea's sprawling embassy in Beijing's leafy Jianguomenwai diplomatic district, where the national flag was flying at half-staff. The official Xinhua News Agency reported the visit but offered no other details.

That followed a meeting Monday evening between the embassy's second-highest-ranking official and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who called Kim a "close friend" who would be remembered forever by the Chinese people. The ruling Communist Party's Central Committee, China's top policy-setting body, hailed Kim's son and successor Kim Jong Un on Monday as North Korea's new leader.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin left the door open for an invitation to the younger Kim, noting that China maintains high-level exchanges with North Korea.

"We would welcome North Korea's leaders to visit China at their convenience," Liu told reporters at Tuesday's daily briefing. The words Liu used could refer to one leader or more than one leader.

China has been expected to push for an early visit by the younger Kim to cement ties with the new leadership, in contrast to the six-year gap between his father's rise to power and his first trip to Beijing. The younger Kim is believed to have already visited China at least once as part of his father's retinue.

U.S. hopes for peace
North Korea, with one of the largest armies in the world, has been recently trying to re-engage the United States in a bid to win food aid. But there has been little progress.

The United States, a close ally of South Korea, wants North Korea first to abandon its attempts to become a nuclear weapons power.

"It is our hope that the new leadership of (North Korea) will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by honoring North Korea's commitments, improving relations with its neighbors, and respecting the rights of its people," Clinton said in a statement.

"The United States stands ready to help the North Korean people and urges the new leadership to work with the international community to usher in a new era of peace, prosperity and lasting security on the Korean Peninsula."

South Korean financial markets, which initially plunged on the news of Kim's death, recovered their poise on Tuesday, posting small gains. Other Asian markets were also calm.

Close to the border, life in the vibrant and prosperous South, the world's 13th largest economy, appeared to be going on as normal. Few saw Kim's death as particularly worrying.

"I don't think any crisis will happen because veteran soldiers are advising the young Kim. Even if he wants to provoke, they will persuade Kim not to do," said Oh Seok-hyun, a 84-year old retired soldier who fought in the Korean war.

"We are, I think, still safe because we have the Eighth United States Army," said Oh, a tourist at the "unification observatory" in the South Korean city of Paju, 3 km (2 miles) from the fortified border.

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