PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) – North Koreans are marking the seventh anniversary of the death of leader Kim Jong Il with visits to statues and vows of loyalty to his son and successor, Kim Jong Un.
As snow fell Sunday, tens of thousands of people offered flowers and paid respects to the late leader at Mansu Hill in central Pyongyang, the location of huge bronze statues of the "Dear Leader" and national founder Kim Il Sung.
The anniversary observations were expected to continue through Monday across the country.
The death of Kim Jong Il on Dec. 17, 2011, thrust his son into power when he was still in his late 20s and a virtual unknown figure outside of the North.
Despite many predictions from outside experts that he wouldn't be up to the task, Kim Jong Un has consolidated his power, bolstered the country's economy in the face of intense international sanctions and attained a goal his father and grandfather could only dream of – he is the first North Korean leader to possess an arsenal of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles capable of reaching the United States.
With attention focused on the anniversary, there was little mention in the state media of the issues that have gotten the most attention elsewhere, including a flurry of speculation in South Korea that Kim might visit Seoul by the end of the year.
But the North's official Korean Central News Agency ran a lengthy commentary late Sunday that slammed the United States for "slander" and "sheer malice" against the country and for dragging its feet on efforts to improve relations after Kim's summit with President Donald Trump in Singapore in June.
The commentary deliberately focused its criticism on the State Department and administration officials, not at Trump, suggesting that Pyongyang remains open to another summit. Trump has suggested he could meet Kim again early next year.
With Kim's power base seemingly more solid than ever, and his recent effort to establish himself on the world stage through summits with Trump and others, North Korea watchers have been on the lookout for signs that his own personality cult is being bolstered.
Virtually all homes and public offices in North Korea feature portraits of the elder Kims, who are also memorialized in countless statues, mosaics and cenotaphs around the country. North Korean adults wear pins over their hearts bearing the likenesses of Kim Il Sung of Kim Jong Il, or both.
The North has yet to come out with a Kim Jong Un pin or to order his image join the others on every wall, though Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, have been referred to with increasingly lofty titles — "chairman" for Kim and "respected first lady" for Ri. A special portrait of the young chairman was unveiled recently at a ceremony to welcome the visit of Cuba's president, but none have appeared in public since. And unlike his father and grandfather, Kim's Jan. 8 birthday has yet to be declared a national holiday or even marked on calendars.
None of that should be assumed to be a sign of weakness, however.
Kim is generally afforded the same reverential treatment by the state media, and for maintaining a respectful step behind his predecessors, he is credited with showing humility and confidence.
Talmadge is the AP's Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @EricTalmadge