North Koreans pay respect to country's late founder amid tension over warship sinking

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Streams of North Koreans paid respects Thursday to the late founder of their country on the 16th anniversary of his death amid tension over the sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on the North.

Thousands of ordinary citizens, uniformed soldiers and children offered bouquets of flowers and bowed deeply in front of a huge bronze statute of Kim Il Sung standing on a hill overlooking the capital, Pyongyang, footage from international TV news agency APTN showed.

Thursday's memorial came with tension running high over the March 26 sinking of the warship Cheonan that Seoul and Washington blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack. North Korea vehemently denies the accusation and has warned any punishment would trigger war.

Kim — the father of current leader Kim Jong Il — died of heart failure in 1994 but is still revered as the country's "eternal president," and a strong personality cult is centered on his family. South Korean intelligence analysts believe Kim Jong Il is preparing to hand over power to a son in what would be another hereditary power transfer.

"Great leader Kim Il Sung is immortal in the hearts of the Korean people for his undying exploits performed for the country and the people," Chon Tong Nam, a Pyongyang citizen, said, according to APTN. "Indeed, there is no other people's leader and great leader like our president in the world."

North Korean officials, Workers' Party members and laborers separately visited Pyongyang's Kumsusan Memorial Palace where Kim Il Sung's embalmed body lies, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. It didn't say whether Kim Jong Il visited the site.

A white flower basket with a tag marked "Kim Jong Il" was seen in front of the 23-meter (75-foot) statue.

"True to the behest of the president, we will build a powerful and prosperous nation on this land at any cost, highly upholding our respected general" Kim Jong Il, said Kim Ryong Il, another Pyongyang resident.

Kim Jong Il assumed power after his father's death, though he did not take on his father's title of president. He runs North Korea from his post as chairman of the National Defense Commission.

Speculation on succession in the North has intensified since Kim Jong Il reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008.