Kim Jong Il's heir meets with SKorean delegation

December 26, 2011 - 8:41 PM
North Korea Kim Jong Il

Members of the South Korean mourners group including Chairwoman of Hyundai Group Hyun Jeong-eun, center, pay their respects over the body of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, North Korea, Monday, Dec. 26, 2011. (AP Photo)

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea's next leader burnished his diplomatic skills, welcoming a private South Korean mourning delegation as state media called Kim Jong Un a "sagacious" leader and revealed a new title that gives him authority over political matters.

Kim Jong Un has rapidly gained prominence since the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, on Dec. 17, and his brief meeting with a group led by a former South Korean first lady and a prominent business leader shows Seoul that he is assured in his new role.

State media have showered Kim with new titles. On Saturday, the North referred to him as "supreme leader" of the 1.2 million-strong armed forces and said the military's top leaders had pledged their loyalty to him. On Monday, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper described him as head of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party — a post that appears to make him the top official in the ruling party.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency also called Kim Jong Un a "sagacious leader" and "dear" comrade while reporting that he paid respects Monday to his father, whose body is lying in state at Kumsusan Memorial Palace. State media have already dubbed him as a "great successor" and an "outstanding leader."

It was the fourth time the North's media reported that the younger Kim had visited the memorial palace since his father's death, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.

Also on Monday, a South Korean delegation stood in a line on a red carpet and bowed silently during their visit to the Kumsusan palace, where Kim's bier is surrounded by flowers and flanked by an honor guard.

Kim Jong Un gave the South Koreans his thanks after they expressed condolences and sympathy, KCNA said. Seoul's Unification Ministry confirmed the meeting in a statement but didn't elaborate.

The lead delegates were the widow of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who engineered a "sunshine" engagement policy with the North and held a landmark summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000, and Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun, whose late husband had ties to the North.

Their meeting with Kim Jong Un could be intended to push South Korea to pursue previously agreed upon cooperative projects that would give North Korea much-needed hard currency, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies.

Footage from AP Television News in North Korea earlier showed the South Koreans being greeted by North Korean officials during a stop at a factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong. North Korea sent delegations to Seoul when the women's husbands died.

Monday's meeting appeared to be Kim Jong Un's first reported meeting with South Koreans since his father's death.

The Kim family has extended its control over the country of 24 million people to a third generation with Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s and was revealed last year as his father's choice among three sons for successor.

Kim Jong Il, who ruled North Korea for 17 years, wielded power as head of three main state organs: the Workers' Party, the Korean People's Army and the National Defense Commission. His father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, remains the nation's "eternal president" long after his 1994 death.

Kim Jong Un was named a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party last year, but was expected to ascend to new military and political posts while being groomed to become the next leader.

Monday's reference to his new title was in a commentary in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Workers' Party, urging soldiers to dedicate their lives "to protect the party's Central Committee headed by respected Comrade Kim Jong Un." Rodong Sinmun has also called on the people to become "eternal revolutionary comrades" with Kim Jong Un, "the sun of the 21st century."

The language echoed slogans used for years to rally support for Kim Jong Il, and made clear that the son is quickly moving toward leadership of the Workers' Party, one of the country's highest positions, in addition to the military.

North Korea refers to Kim Il Sung as the "sun" of the nation, and his birthday is celebrated as the "Day of the Sun." State media have sought to emphasize Kim Jong Un's role in carrying out the Kim family legacy throughout his succession movement.

His titles are slight variations of those held by his father, but appear to carry the same weight. It was unclear whether the nation's constitution had been changed to reflect the transfer of leadership as when Kim Jong Il took power after his father's death.

Mourning continued, meanwhile, despite frigid winter weather, in the final days before Kim Jong Il's funeral, which is set to take place Wednesday, and a memorial Thursday.

People continued lining up Monday in central Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square, where a massive portrait that usually features Kim Il Sung has been replaced by one of Kim Jong Il, to bow before his smiling image and to lay funeral flowers. Heated buses stood by to give mourners a respite from the cold, and hot tea and water were distributed from beverage kiosks.

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Associated Press writers Foster Klug, Hyung-jin Kim and Jiyoung Won in Seoul, South Korea, and AP Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee contributed to this report. Follow AP's Korea coverage at twitter.com/newsjean and twitter.com/APKlug.