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As North Korea mourns, its neighbor shrugs

Adrienne Mong

All was quiet on the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula on the Kim Jong Il's state funeral took place.

SEOUL, South Korea — As one journalist put it, it said how much we all knew about North Korea that for the better part of Wednesday morning, most of the world remained in the dark about just when — if at all  — the state funeral for the country's late leader Kim Jong Il had begun

But finally around 2 p.m in Seoul, a feed of the funeral proceedings began transmitting. We watched online, impressed by the staging and the direction. 


Thousands of people in olive drab stood under snowfall in front of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace — where Kim Jong Il’s body had been lying in state and where that of his father Kim Il Sung is also housed — as a procession of vehicles drove past, including the hearse led by Kim Jong Il's son and successor, Kim Jong Un.

Under a dramatic soundtrack and the emotion-laden voice of a North Korean broadcaster, the continuous wailing of mourners could be heard. Cameras pushed into close-ups of rows and rows of men and women in military uniform sobbing. 

As the procession wound its way through Pyongyang and the snowfall grew heavier, footage of civilians began to appear.  Dressed in thick winter coats, they craned their necks and covered their mouths as they wept.  Those in the front — closest to the cameras —jumped up and down with great emotion.  Occasionally, a row of soldiers appeared expressionless and stoic.

Wednesday's state funeral for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il capped more than a week of public mourning. NBC's Adrienne Mong reports.

As the video was broadcast — and despite the "live" banner on some cable stations, it was still unclear whether the footage was being transmitted live or had been recorded earlier until one news agency confirmed it was indeed the former.

The mood in Seoul was decidedly different.

'Like father, like son'
Among a small community of North Koreans who fled their homeland years ago, there was scorn for the man they once called their "Dear Leader" and a touch of hope that his death may usher in long-awaited change.

"Kim Jong Il made three million people starve to death," said Kim Jung-geum, a reporter and radio announcer with Free North Korea Radio.  She escaped from the North eight years ago and has been living in Seoul for the past six years.

"Initially I thought, wow, now we can go home. But the feeling didn’t last even a day," said Kim Sung-min, founder of the station —which broadcasts a one-hour shortwave radio program back into the North every day.  

"It is the third generation leadership," said Kim, who defected from North Korea 11 years ago. "Like father, like son.  There is no hope. There is zero per cent chance of change as Kim Jong Un inheried Kim Jong Il's system."

Adrienne Mong

The streets of Seoul suggested it was business as usual in South Korea as Kim Jong Il's state funeral was held.

His colleague was willing to be a bit more optimistic.  "The dictatorship is over," said Kim Jung-geum quietly.  "A new era will begin with 2012.  I expect that."

Both of them, however, did agree on one thing.  They remembered when North Korean founder Kim Il Sung died.

"I was so sad that I skipped two meals," recalled Kim Sung-min, who was serving in the North Korean military in a northern province at the time.  "It was as if the sun had fallen to earth."

"I cried for Kim Il Sung," said Kim Jung-geum, who was a propaganda teacher at the time.  "We had a food ration system.  People had salaries then.  So I genuinely grieved for his death."

Among South Koreans there was largely indifference.

A trio of college students said they were initially worried about the possible ramifications of Kim Jong Il’s death.  "But now I feel a lot better," said Lee Kyung-min, more keen on visiting a nearby museum than thinking about regional security. None of them were interested in the funeral proceedings.

"It was big news," said Cho Nam-hyun, a reporter for Dong-A Ilbo. "But personally, I think of it just as a head of state who died."

The indifference doesn't come as a surprise to analysts in South Korea. 

"We've been living under the gun for the past 60 years," said Dr. Hahm Chaibong, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.  "You can’t count the number of crises that we've had over the years.  Be it assassinations, commando raids, downing of airplanes, terrorist bombings, and of course more recently nuclear experiments and shelling of islands."

Hahm also offered a final somber thought.

"By and large everyone has learned a lesson as far as to what to expect," he said.  "Everybody knows that there isn’t all that much to expect in terms of radical change….  If North Korea is going to change, it's not going to because of something we do in the outside world.  They will be the ones who will be undertaking changes because they think it's necessary and because they decide it's time they do it."

Follow NBC News' Adrienne Mong (@adriennemong) on Twitter.