North Koreans bade farewell to "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il on a snowy Wednesday as his successor son was thrust to the forefront of a tightly-choreographed funeral in an apparent move to shore up the young leader's image.
The reclusive nuclear-armed nation's official media declared the country in Kim Jong Un's "warm care," in effect confirming him as North Korea's third-generation hereditary leader after the late Kim succeeded his own father Kim Il Sung in the 1990s.
Kim Jong Un, in his late 20's and already hailed by state media as the "supreme leader" of the party, state and army, walked beside the hearse carrying Kim's coffin draped with a red flag on a bed of white flowers, North Korean state television showed.
Tens of thousands of people, including soldiers, took part in the 40 kilometer (25 mile) funeral procession in the snow covered streets of Pyongyang.
An anonymous source inside North Korea told RFA that mourners from at least one province were mainly government staff, college students, factory workers and soldiers.
The Yanggang Province's ruling party commission arranged "a group of weepers" for the funeral, comprising "contributors" to and "patriots" of the Kim regime, and their families, local artists and actors or actresses, the source said.
As the cortege passed, many Koreans took off their coats and scarves to cover the road, echoing a song "General, do not walk on a snowy day," Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.
The procession began and ended at Kumsusan Memorial Palace where Kim's body had been lying in state since he died of a heart attack on Dec. 17, state television showed.
His father is preserved in the palace and speculations are that Kim Jong Il is also expected to be embalmed and put on permanent display.
The funeral ceremony will be followed by a national memorial service on Thursday where North Koreans will observe a three-minute silence with gun volleys firing and locomotives blowing whistles and sirens all at once.
The funeral procession on Wednesday provided early signs on who will help secure the rise to power of the junior Kim in the world's most secretive regime blamed for massive human rights abuses, chronic food shortages, decades of economic hardship and building an illicitly nuclear weapons arsenal.
Walking directly behind Kim Jong Un was Jang Song Thaek, his 65-year-old uncle and most influential adviser, who wore a uniform with a general's insignia for the first time last week, indicating he has been appointed to a new military job.
Others accompanying the coffin were senior ruling party officials Kim Ki Nam and Choe Thae Bok; head of the general staff of the North's Korean People's Army Ri Yong Ho; Defense Minister Kim Yong Chun; and Kim Jong Gak, in charge of military administration and organization.
“It seems that Jang Song Thaek has emerged as a regent-like figure, apparently on hand to guide Kim Jong Un, and Kim Ki Nam and Choe Thae Bok were promoted to higher positions,” Chang Hyun Chung, associate professor of Kookmin University in South Korea, told RFA.
An anonymous source listed Jang, Ri and Kim Jong Gak as vital in guiding the new “supreme commander,” saying the trio were born in 1940s and regarded as the "younger generation among key members of the regime."
Kim Jong Il's two other sons, Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chol, were not spotted at the procession.
The funeral procession had a stronger military presence than that of Kim Il Sung in 1994, according to the Associated Press, the only Western news agency with a bureau in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Il, who ushered in a "military first" era when he took power, had held lavish armed forces parades designed to show off the nation's military might, such as the October 2010 display when he introduced his son to the world.
The strong military presence on Wednesday suggests Kim will uphold his father's military-first policy, said Yoo Ho Yeol, a professor at Korea University in South Korea.
Kim Jong Un was made a four-star general and appointed a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers' Party last year.
In neighboring capitalist South Korea, across the heavily fortified border, North Korean defectors launched leaflets into their former homeland calling for an end to the Kim dynasty.
"Kim Jong Il. Go to hell!" read a banner attached to one of the giant balloons carrying bundles of leaflets across the frontier.
One defector, identified only as Han, said Pyongyang was expected to revise 2012 calendars that had already been printed in a bid to "correct" facts inserted before Kim's death.
"It's because any mistake will dampen Kim's idolization process."
In China, Pyongyang's primary ally and largest trading partner, the Defense Ministry rejected reports that the Chinese army had entered North Korea, saying they were "totally groundless."
The ministry made the statement in response to questions over reports claiming the Chinese army had already entered North Korean territories as requested by the country to help maintain its stability, Xinhua news agency reported. It did not identify where the reports came from.
The Defense Ministry also said that its ambassador to North Korea was at the funeral ceremony even though Pyongyang had said no foreign delegations were invited.
China's envoy was present at the ceremony "as per prior arrangements" with the North Korean government, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei confirmed at a regular press briefing in Beijing, Agence France-Presse reported.
It was not clear whether Liu Hongcai was the only ambassador who attended the ceremony.
Beijing had said it wanted North Koreans to unite behind Kim Jong Un.
Reported by Songwu Park, Sung Hui Moon and Joon Ho Kim of RFA's Korean service. Translated by Bong Park. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.