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Kim Jong Il death empties streets, stops trains, shuts markets

December 19, 2011 | 10:27 am

REPORTING FROM SEOUL -- Trains reportedly stopped running. Markets were shut down. Residents were urged to get off the streets and stay in their homes.

It is never easy to know what is going on inside North Korea. That was particularly true on this cold Monday in December, when the country was absorbing the announcement that its leader, Kim Jong Il, had died.

There were no reports of unrest. But with the country facing a transition to Kim's largely untested young son, the regime appeared to be taking no chances, quickly enacting rigid social controls, according to media reports.

PHOTOS: Kim Jong Il | 1942-2011

Usually busy streets were emptied. In Musan, a northern city across the frozen Tumen River from China, several loud siren blasts were heard soon after the announcement. Then officers and agents of the National Security Agency and the People’s Safety Ministry urged residents to return to their homes.

"They wouldn't even let the children come out of the house," a source inside the North Korean regime told the Daily NK newspaper here, adding that armed soldiers were positioned 12 feet apart across much of the town. "Citizens are being extra careful in their speech and actions."

According to reports, the normally secretive nation basically shut down for a while after the announcement of Kim's death. Trains reportedly stopped running for a time. There were no public appearances by party officials, not even Kim Jong Un, the late leader's youngest son and handpicked successor.

In announcing the date of Kim Jong Il's funeral, the state-run Korea Central News Agency reported that foreign ambassadors would be forbidden from attending.

FULL COVERAGE: Kim Jong Il | 1942-2011

An official at the Seoul embassy of a nation that also has a mission in Pyongyang said it was impossible to reach colleagues in the North Korean capital on Monday, suggesting that the regime had tried to sever its 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 are overloaded or shut down."

As the news spread Monday, many people who ventured onto the streets were in shock, according to North Korean media, which broadcast images of wailing citizens. A Chinese news network showed one Pyongyang resident unable to hold back his tears. "How can I put in to words the sorrow I feel? I cannot go on," he said.

Yet analysts in Seoul said they expected much less outpouring of grief for Kim Jong Il than that for the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, 17 years ago. North Koreans have faced widespread food shortages and other deprivations, and many silently blame the "Dear Leader," said Lee Dong-bak, a former South Korean negotiator with the North.

"North Koreans are going through a tough time economically," he said. "The funeral will be by far reduced from the one in 1994. There will be formal functions to see Kim off, but how much actual remorse? That's another matter of uncertainty."

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-- John M. Glionna

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