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Thousands gather in snow to mourn Kim Jong Il as North Korea puts troops on alert
PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) ' Tens of thousands of mourners packed Pyongyang's snowy main square Wednesday to pay respects to late leader Kim Jong Il as North Korea tightened security in cities and won loyalty pledges from top generals for Kim's son and anointed heir.
Women held handkerchiefs to their faces as they wept and filed past a huge portrait of a smiling Kim Jong Il hanging on the Grand People's Study House, in the spot where a photograph of Kim's father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, usually hangs.
Kim Jong Il died of a massive heart attack Saturday, according to state media, which reported his death on Monday. They said he was 69 ' although some accounts put his age at 70.
A huge crowd of mourners converged on Kim Il Sung Square with traditional white mourning flowers in hand. The crowd grew throughout the day, even as heavy snow fell, and some mourners took off their jackets to shield mourning wreaths set up in Kim's honor, just below the spot where he stood last year waving to crowds at the massive military parade where he introduced his successor, Kim Jong Un.
Two medical workers rushed to carry away a woman who had fainted.
"We chose to come here to care for citizens who might faint because of sorrow and mental strain," Jon Gyong Song, 29, who works as a doctor in a Pyongyang medical center, told The Associated Press. "The flow of mourners hasn't stopped since Tuesday night."
South Korean intelligence reports, meanwhile, indicated Wednesday that North Korea was consolidating power behind Kim's untested son, believed to be in his late 20s.
Worries around Northeast Asia have risen sharply as Kim Jong Un rises to power in a country with a 1.2-million troop military, ballistic missiles and an advanced nuclear weapons development program.
South Korea has put its military on high alert. In another sign of border tension, Chinese boatmen along a river separating North Korea and China told the AP that North Korean police have ordered them to stop giving rides to tourists, saying they will fire on the boats if they see anyone with cameras.
Along the Koreas' border, the world's most heavily armed, South Korean activists and defectors launched giant balloons containing tens of thousands of propaganda leaflets, a move likely to infuriate the North. Some of the leaflets opposed a hereditary transfer of power in North Korea. Some showed graphic pictures of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's battered corpse and described his gruesome death.
Kim Jong Il ruled the country for 17 years after inheriting power from his father, national founder and eternal North Korean President Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. Kim Jong Un only entered the public view last year and remains a mystery to most of the world.
Seoul's National Intelligence Service believes the North is now focused on consolidating Kim Jong Un's power and has placed its troops on alert, according to South Korean parliament member Kwon Young-se.
South Korean military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of policies that restrict comment on intelligence matters, said North Korea has ordered its troops to be vigilant but that it didn't mean they were being moved.
Lawmaker Kwon said the NIS told the parliamentary intelligence committee that senior military officials have pledged allegiance to Kim Jong Un, and that more security officers have been deployed in major cities across the country. Intelligence officials declined to comment.
The NIS also gave its predictions on how the North's government will work during the transition of power to the younger Kim.
It told lawmakers that an ad hoc committee is expected to handle key state affairs before Kim Jong Un formally becomes the country's leader, according to lawmaker Hwang Jin-ha, who also attended the closed-door briefing. Intelligence officials didn't describe how they got the information, he said.
The NIS predicts that Kim Kyong Hui, a key Workers' Party official and Kim Jong Un's aunt, and Jang Song Thaek, her husband and a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, will play larger roles supporting the heir, the lawmaker said.
A South Korean Defense Ministry official handling North Korea affairs, however, said there is too little information to make a confident judgment about where North Korea's power transition is heading.
Initial indications out of North Korea suggest the power transition to the son has been moving forward, though it remains unclear when Kim Jong Un will formally take power.
In 1994, Kim Jong Il declared a three-year mourning period following his father's death, becoming the official leader of the nation in 1997.
Kim Jong Un led a procession of senior officials Tuesday in a viewing of Kim Jong Il's body, which is being displayed in a glass coffin near that of Kim Il Sung. Publicly presiding over the funeral proceedings was an important milestone for Kim's son, strengthening his image as the country's political face at home and abroad.
According to official media, more than 5 million North Koreans have gathered at monuments and memorials in the capital since the death of Kim Jong Il.
Hundreds of thousands visited monuments around the city within hours of the official announcement that Kim had died.
The North has declared an 11-day period of mourning that will culminate in his state funeral and a national memorial service on Dec. 28-29.
The leaflets sent into North Korea on Wednesday by South Korean activists are a sore point with the North, which sees them as propaganda warfare. North Korea has previously warned it would fire at South Korea in response to such actions. There were no immediate reports of retaliation, however. South Korean activists vowed to continue sending leaflets.
Reporting from Pyongyang by Associated Press Television News senior video journalist Rafael Wober and AP reporter Pak Won Il. AP writers Foster Klug, Hyung-jin Kim, Sam Kim and Eric Talmadge in Seoul, AP photographers Andy Wong in Dandong, China, and Lee Jin-man in Imjingak, South Korea, as well as Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee contributed to this story.