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An in-depth series: A nation mourns its leader's passing and regional powers watch anxiously as the young Kim Jong Un takes the spotlight.

North korea mural funeral politics 2011 12 232
Propaganda mural painting is seen outside People's Palace of Culture on April 2, 2011 in Pyongyang. (Feng Li/Getty Images)
South Korea

North Korea's funeral politics

Despite the North's warm welcome, only two South Korean widows look likely to attend Kim Jong Il's funeral.

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea is playing a skillful game of funeral diplomacy that’s dividing South Koreans and leaving everyone to wonder what's going on in the corridors of power in Pyongyang.

All North Korean strategists have had to do is issue a huge welcome to all those down here who would like to join “condolence delegations” for ceremonies surrounding the funeral next Wednesday for the late lamented Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.

As far as the would-be hosts in the North are concerned, they can even come by road through the truce village of Panmunjom rather than make the circuitous, and expensive, journey by air via Beijing.

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The notion of opening up the border crossing for travel to the funeral upsets authorities in the South who see the North as carefully playing upon pro-condolence and anti-condolence sentiments here.

Korean conservatives believe President Lee Myung Bak has gone far enough in approving a message of “sympathy to the people” of North Korea — well short of condolences — while permitting those who want to send their own condolences to go ahead and do so.

At the same time, North Korea’s official website, Uriminzokkiri, the one that foreigners, not ordinary North Koreans, get to see, warmly welcomed South Koreans yearning to join the funeral crowd. For those who might have trepidations, the site promised “the convenience and safety of South Korean condolence delegations will be fully guaranteed.”

The website coupled that assurance with a scolding for what it called “unacceptable and inhumane action" and a promise to “keep in mind those who do not understand even the most basic respect and humanity.”

The state media followed up on that dark hint by coming up with an emotional phrase to show that Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s third son, is really taking charge. The party newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Saturday hailed Jong Un, in his late 20’s, as “supreme commander in heart,” meaning he’ll get the title soon after the funeral.

Leaving little doubt the North’s hard line policy will endure, the diatribe called for “completing the ‘military-first revolution’ under comrade Kim Jong Un as our supreme commander and our general.”

More from GlobalPost: Does South Korea even care?

All of which creates a problem for South Korean authorities who have refused to send an official delegation, have banned opposition politicos from doing so as well and don’t appear interested in opening up the Panmunjom crossing.

All they’ve agreed on so far is to permit two widows whose husbands had unique, tragically interwoven records in pursuing rapprochement between South and North to lead their own “condolence delegations.”

They're invited to ceremonies including the viewing of the body in its glass coffin — though not the funeral itself, which is closed to all but a select inner circle.

Who are the South Korean widows heading to funeral ceremonies?

First is Lee Hee Ho, the widow of Kim Dae Jung, the president who articulated a “Sunshine Policy” of reconciliation with North Korea. Kim and Lee flew to Pyongyang for the first inter-Korean summit with Kim Jong Il in June 2000, which proved to be the crowning moment of both of their lives. Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize six months later.

Second is Hyun Jeong Un, widow of the chairman of Hyundai Asan, Chung Mong Hun. Hyundai Asan was the Hyundai group company responsible for realizing the dream of Chung Mong Hun's legendary father, Chung Ju Yung, to open up North Korea for business and tourism.

Asan was the name of the village near the east coast of North Korea, a few miles above the Mount Kumkang region, from which the elder Chung fled at the age of 18 after stealing one of his father’s cows to seek his fortune in the South.

Chung Mong Hun was in the retinue of the 130 top bureaucrats, politicos and business leaders who accompanied Kim Dae Jung on that historic flight from Seoul to Pyongyang. It was through Chung and his father that North Korea had first signaled interest in an inter-Korean summit.

There was, however, one catch that was not revealed until long after the summit — South Korea had to transfer at least half a billion dollars into North Korean