By David Chance
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea will hold a funeral procession on Wednesday for its deceased "dear leader", Kim Jong-il, making way for his son, Kim Jong-un, to become the third member of the family to run the isolated and unpredictable Asian country.
The coming year was supposed to mark North Korea's self-proclaimed transformation into a "strong and prosperous" nation, but it faces a dangerous transition to a young, untested leader at a time when dictatorships across the world have tumbled.
The pomp, show of military might and weeping crowds at the funeral will likely mirror the 1994 funeral procession for Kim's father, Kim Il-Sung, the first of the family to rule.
Similarly, it would seem that little is set to change in a country that has staged what many analysts have dubbed a "Great March Backwards" over the last 20 years.
Strong it may be - North Korea is backed by neighboring China, has conducted two nuclear tests and has ambitions to become a nuclear power and boasts a 1.2 million-strong armed forces - but prosperous it is not.
On average, North Koreans die three-and-a-half years earlier than they did when "Eternal President" Kim Il-sung died, according to U.N. data.
The North is one of the most closed and poorest societies on earth, ranking 194 out of 227 countries in terms of per capita wealth, according to the CIA World Factbook.
The United Nations, in a country program for 2011-15, says North Korea's main challenge is to "restore the economy to the level attained before 1990" and to alleviate food shortages for a third of its 25 million-strong population.
Indications from the transition since Kim Jong-il's death on December 17 suggest the father's hardline "military first" policy will continue, leading to further hardship in a country that endured mass starvation in the 1990s.
Leverage from outside, with the exception of China, is limited so all the United States, South Korea and Japan can do is hope that the regime does not collapse, nor flex its military muscle as it did in 2010, when it shelled a South Korean island.
"So far, there is little reason to expect policy changes given that the leadership hierarchy is basically the same with the exception that Kim Jong-un is replacing Kim Jong-il," said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea Studies at Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. thinktank.
North Korea was established in 1948 and under its founding father, Kim Il-sung, went to war to try to conquer the South. It failed and in 1953 a dividing line that would become the world's most militarized frontier was drawn across the peninsula.
While Kim Il-sung was revered by his people for fighting Japanese colonial rule, the halo surrounding his successors has steadily dimmed to such an extent that his grandson, the new ruler, will have to rely on people such as his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, to hold on to power, at least in the short term.
"The outlook for stability is not good, because Kim Jong-un's succession is very different from Kim Jong-il's," said Jia Qingguo, a professor of international relations at Peking University.
"Kim Il-sung was the country's founding father with an extraordinary career and a great deal of personal authority, so when he transferred power to his son, his son assumed quite a lot of authority."
Official media in the North have built Kim Jong-un, a jowly and rotund man in his late 20s, into a leader worthy of inheriting the crown, naming him "respected general", "great successor", "outstanding leader" and "supreme commander".
This year, dissident groups based in South Korea, citing North Korean refugees and businessmen working in China, linked the youngest Kim to a crackdown on business activities and a tougher policy on people seeking to flee from North Korea.
Those reports could not be independently verified, but would again suggest that further repression is more likely than an economic opening under the new man.
It also gives little hope for the 200,000 North Koreans who human rights group Amnesty international says are enslaved in labor camps over some infringement, subjected to torture and hunger or execution.
"here is likely to be a politically motivated purge and imprisonment, and it could go on for a considerable period of time," said Pak Sang-hak, who heads a group in Seoul working to support defectors, and is himself a defector.
"That is especially because of the relative instability of Kim Jong-un's leadership. There might also be persecution as a way of intimidation and discipline."
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim in SEOUL and Chris Buckley in BEIJING; Editing by Jonathan Hopfner and Robert Birsel)