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North Korea shows heir Kim Jong Un's uncle in military uniform, sign he'll play bigger role
PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) ' North Korea on Sunday aired footage showing the uncle and key patron of anointed heir Kim Jong Un wearing a military uniform with a general's insignia ' a strong sign he'll play a crucial role in helping the young man take over power and uphold the "military-first" policy initiated by his late father, Kim Jong Il.
The footage on state television shows Jang Song Thaek in uniform as he pays respects at Kim Jong Il's body lying in state at Kumsusan Memorial Palace. Seoul's Unification Ministry says it's the first time Jang, usually seen in business suits, has been shown wearing a military uniform on state TV.
Little by little, North Korea is offering hints on the details of Kim Jong Un's rise and the future composition of his inner circle as millions continue to mourn for his father, who died just over a week ago. North Korea has also begun hailing Kim Jong Un as "supreme leader" of the 1.2-million strong military as it ramps up its campaign to install him as ruler.
The new title, a public show of support from top military leadership and the symbolic appearance of Jang in uniform send a strong signal that the nation will maintain Kim Jong Il's "military first" policy for the time being.
South Korean intelligence has reportedly predicted Kim Jong Un's aunt Kim Kyong Hui, a key Workers' Party official, and her husband Jang, who is a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, will play larger roles supporting the heir.
Jang and his wife have risen to the top of North Korea's political and military elite since the succession campaign began two years ago. Both 65, they also have the weight of seniority so important in a society that places a premium on age and alliances.
Kim Jong Un made a third visit Saturday to the palace where his father's body is lying in state ' this time as "supreme leader of the revolutionary armed forces" and accompanied by North Korea's top military brass, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
Earlier, the newspaper Rodong Sinmun, mouthpiece of the ruling Workers' Party, urged Kim Jong Un to accept the top military post: "Comrade Kim Jong Un, please assume the supreme commandership, as wished by the people."
Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s and was unveiled in September 2010 as his father's choice as successor, will be the third-generation Kim to rule the nation of 24 million. His father and grandfather led the country under different titles, and it remains unclear which other titles will be bestowed on the grandson.
Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea in 1948, retains the title of "eternal president" even after his death in 1994.
His son, Kim Jong Il, ruled as chairman of the National Defense Commission, supreme commander of the Korean People's Army and general secretary of the Workers' Party.
Kim Jong Un was promoted to four-star general and appointed a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party. He had been expected to assume a number of other key posts while being groomed to succeed his father.
His father's death comes at a sensitive time for North Korea, which was in the middle of discussions with the U.S. on food aid and restarting talks to dismantle the North's nuclear weapons program. Chronically short of food and suffering from a shortfall in basic staples after several harsh seasons, officials had been asking for help feeding its people even as North Koreans prepared for 2012 celebrations marking Kim Il Sung's 100th birthday.
North Korea has emphasized the Kim family legacy during the sped-up succession movement for Kim Jong Un. State media invoked Kim Il Sung in declaring the people's support for the next leader, comparing the occasion to Kim Jong Il's ascension to "supreme commander" exactly 20 years ago Saturday.
At the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Kim Jong Un and senior commanders paid silent tribute to Kim Jong Il, "praying for his immortality," KCNA said. The military also pledged its loyalty to Kim Jong Un, the report said.
"Let the whole army remain true to the leadership of Kim Jong Un over the army," KCNA reported ' a pledge reminiscent of those made when Kim Jong Il was named supreme commander.
The call to rally behind Kim Jong Un, dubbed the "Great Successor" in the wake of his father's death on Dec. 17 from a heart attack, comes amid displays of grief across North Korea. The official mourning period lasts until after Kim's funeral Wednesday and a memorial Thursday.
In Pyongyang, workers at beverage kiosks handed steaming cups of water to shivering mourners, including children bundled up in colorful thick parkas. A throng of North Koreans climbed steps and placed flowers and wreaths in a neat row below a portrait of Kim Jong Il as solemn music filled the air and young uniformed soldiers, their heads shaved, bowed before his picture.
A sobbing Jong Myong Hui, a Pyongyang citizen taking a break from shoveling snow, told AP Television News that she came out voluntarily to "clear the way for Kim Jong Il's last journey."
Despite the grief, there are signs that the country is beginning to move on, with people going to work and "not giving way simply to sorrow," KCNA said. "They are getting over the demise of their leader, promoted by a strong will to closely rally around respected Comrade Kim Jong Un."
The Korean peninsula has remained in a technical state of war since the Koreas' 1950-53 conflict, but two groups from South Korea have permission from the South Korean government to visit the North to pay their respects, Unification Ministry spokesman Choi Boh-seon said Saturday in Seoul.
One group will be led by the widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, who held a landmark summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000, and the other by the wife of a late businessman with ties to the North.
On Sunday, North Korea accused South Korea of blocking many other groups from visiting Pyongyang to pay respects, warning the action would trigger "unpredictable catastrophic consequences" in relations between the countries. The statement by an unidentified spokesman at the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification was carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Seoul's Unification Ministry said it will allow only the two groups to visit the North.
Associated Press writers Foster Klug and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and AP Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee contributed to this report. Follow them on Twitter at twitter.com/newsjean and twitter.com/APKlug.