- Associated Press - Thursday, February 9, 2012

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA Wherever North Korea’s young new leader goes, they’re there: a group of graying military and political officials who shadow Kim Jong-un as he visits army bases, attends concerts and tours schools.

As Mr. Kim steps into the role of “supreme commander” less than two months after his father’s death, these officials can be seen in the background. They listen attentively as their leader speaks during “guidance visits” and stand at his side during group photos, smiling and clapping.

Since Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack in December, his son has assumed the mantle of leadership with apparent confidence. This aging circle of advisers is never far behind, lending the young man gravitas and experience, while making clear that he has the backing of the powerful military.

The world has been watching for signs of trouble as Mr. Kim, believed to be in his late 20s, leads North Korea just three years after he was tapped to be his father’s successor.

His ascension comes at a delicate time. Kim Jong-il died as diplomats were in the midst of negotiating with Washington on much-needed aid to alleviate a chronic food shortage. Nuclear-armed North Korea and its neighbors also were discussing the prospect of restarting disarmament talks.

The show of support by the nation’s core military and political leadership settles a major question about the new era under Kim Jong-un: Kim Jong-il’s “military first” policy will remain in place.

The military leaders, many now in their 70s and 80s, will continue to advise Kim Jong-un after years of working with his father and even his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung.

The “central” leadership stepped into the spotlight most vividly during Kim Jong-il’s funeral in a tableau watched as closely here in Pyongyang as it was in Seoul and Washington for signs indicating who is in power in communist North Korea’s opaque political system.

On that day, in a swirl of snow, seven elderly men representing the topmost levels of North Korea’s military and political circles walked with the young leader, as they accompanied the black limousine bearing Kim Jong-il’s flag-draped coffin.

At the front of the hearse, opposite Kim Jong-un, walked Ri Yong-ho, vice marshal of the Korean People's Army and chief of the military’s General Staff.

Marshal Ri wields power from his position at the intersection of three crucial institutions: the Korean People's Army, the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party and the Standing Committee of the party’s influential Political Bureau.

While the Workers’ Party of Korea has served as the backbone of the power structure since Kim Il-sung founded the country in 1948, Kim Jong-il elevated the military when he became leader after his father’s death in 1994.

Marshal Ri, who has operational control of the army, also oversees an influential support group for Kim Jong-un that includes officers in their 50s and 60s considered rising stars in the military, according to Ken Gause, a North Korea specialist at CNA, a U.S.-based research organization.

A stern figure, Marshal Ri stood between Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un in October 2010, as they watched a massive military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the Workers’ Party. He occasionally leaned over to whisper to the son, who was making his international public debut.

Walking directly behind the young leader during the funeral procession was his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, husband of Kim Jong-il’s powerful younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui.

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