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Youth, inexperience of Kim Jong-il’s son trigger concern

Military officers pledge allegiance

- - Wednesday, December 21, 2011

SEOUL North Koreans inside the secretive, totalitarian state are expressing doubts about their new leader and anxiety over the future, while revealing details about their dire circumstances in rural areas that appear to be slipping from the grasp of the repressive regime.

Meanwhile, North Korea's top military leaders pledged their allegiance Wednesday to Kim Jong-un, the 27-year-old, hand-picked successor of his father, Kim Jong-il, who died Saturday, according to the Reuters news agency.

The event is significant because Mr. Kim, who holds the rank of a four-star general but has not served in the military, is not a member of the National Defense Commission, which controls the military and was headed by his father.

"For a while, this is positive for stability," said Park Chang-kwoun of the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, based in Seoul. "His father had a 'military first' policy, and I think he will continue that."

Thousands of mourners gathered Wednesday in the snowy main square of North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, to pay their respects to Kim Jong-il, who is lying in state at Kumsusan Memorial Palace. He is to be entombed Tuesday.

Outside Pyongyang, some North Koreans in rural areas questioned Kim Jong-un's youth and inexperience and expressed their doubts to advocacy groups in South Korea that monitor the North.

"Can he lead us?" a midlevel government official inside rural North Korea said in a telephone conversation with Kim Seoung-un, pastor of Caleb Mission in Seoul.

Caleb Mission is a South Korea-based Christian group that gathers information by cellphone and digital cameras inside North Korea, and helps would-be defectors escape.

"After Kim Jong-il died, rather than being mournful, people in North Korea are anxious. They don't know what is going on," Pastor Kim told reporters in Seoul.

A North Korean in the northwestern part of the country said the new leader "is just a baby" in a radio conversation with Ha Tae-kyung of Radio Free North Korea, which maintains a network of contacts inside the country.

The "baby" comment reflects a societal bias that puts a premium on age and experience.

Mr. Ha's contacts in North Korea told him that gatherings of more than five people have been banned, markets are being shut down, foreigners are being asked to leave, North Koreans in China are being asked to return, and border security has been reinforced in the aftermath of Kim Jong-il's death.

South Korea's military has been placed on high alert, even as intelligence reports indicate that North Korea's power brokers are coalescing behind Kim Jong-un.

The North's 1.2 million troops, nuclear arsenal, missile systems and asymmetric military tactics have prompted concerns about whether the transition of power to the young Mr. Kim will proceed smoothly.

In a sign of border tension, Chinese boaters along a river separating North Korea and China said that North Korean police ordered them to stop giving rides to tourists and threatened to fire on the boats if they saw anyone with cameras, the Associated Press reported.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said U.S. officials are closely monitoring the situation in North Korea, hoping its new leadership will "support peace, prosperity and a better future" for its people.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials had been in contact with North Korean officials Monday and sought more information on which to make a decision about resuming food aid and denuclearization talks.

Famine has long stalked dirt-poor North Korea, and a recent United Nations report states that about one-quarter of its 24 million people have suffered food shortages.

In some areas, malnutrition is dire: Citing North Korean legal records, South Korean media reported in 2009 that police north of the border had investigated a case of human meat being sold under the label of "lamb."

Pastor Kim of Caleb Mission showed journalists film clips of ragged orphans rooting for scraps underneath trains, people riding on train tops to avoid paying fares and market stall holders doing business in Chinese currency.

North Korean officials botched a 2009 currency reform that analysts said was an effort for the government to regain some control over market-capitalist practices blossoming in rural areas.

Since the 2009 reform, North Korea's currency exchange rate with China, its biggest trade partner, has risen by nearly 50 percent and the price of rice has risen 30 percent, Pastor Kim said.