- Associated Press - Sunday, December 25, 2011

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea is 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.

As North Korea prepares for Kim Jong-il’s funeral Wednesday, it is also warning South Korea against barring visits to Pyongyang by civilian groups hoping to pay respects, saying the obstruction will lead to “catastrophic consequences” for relations between the rivals.

While millions continue to mourn Kim Jong-il, North Korea is offering hints about Kim Jong-un’s rise and the future composition of his inner circle. North Korea began hailing Kim Jong-un as “supreme leader” of the 1.2-million strong military over the weekend as it ramps up its campaign to install him as ruler.

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 this nation of 24 million.

Koreans should become “eternal revolutionary comrades” with Kim Jong-un, “the sun of the 21st century,” the North’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said Sunday in a commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

State television showed footage Sunday of a uniformed Jang Song-thaek and his nephew Kim Jong-un paying their respects before Kim Jong-il’s body, which is lying in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. Seoul’s Unification Ministry said it was the first time Mr. Jang, usually seen in business suits, had been shown wearing a military uniform on state TV.

Mr. Jang, a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, is the husband of Kim Kyong-hui, younger sister of Kim Jong-il’s and a key Workers’ Party official. South Korean lawmakers say intelligence officials have predicted that Mr. Jang and his wife will play larger roles supporting Kim Jong-un.

The new titles, a public show of support from top military leadership and the symbolic appearance of Mr. Jang in uniform send strong signals that North Korea will maintain Kim Jong-il’s “military first” policy for the time being.

North Korea is in official mourning until Kim Jong-il’s funeral Wednesday and a memorial Thursday.

South Korea has permitted only two groups with ties to North Korea to visit and pay condolences ahead of the funeral and has rejected demands by several others.

The South Korean groups, led by the widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, who held a landmark summit with Kim Jong-il in 2000, and a business leader whose late husband had ties to the North, plan to cross the heavily fortified border Monday for a two-day trip, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.

On Saturday, Kim Jong-un again visited 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 KCNA.

Earlier, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper 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’s father and grandfather led the country under different titles, and it remains unclear which other titles will be bestowed on him.

Kim Jong-un was promoted last year 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 United States on food aid and restarting talks to dismantle the North’s nuclear weapons program. With North Korea 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 the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder and the late father of Kim Jong-il.

Also, animosity with South Korea still lingers after two incidents blamed on North Korea killed 50 South Koreans last year.

Calls 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, come amid displays of grief across North Korea.

On Sunday, the North’s state TV repeatedly showed footage of wailing uniformed soldiers, many with shaved heads, and other citizens professing their tear-choked longing for Kim Jong-il as they visited mourning sites.

In Pyongyang, workers at drink kiosks handed steaming cups of water to shivering mourners, including children bundled up in colorful, thick parkas. State media said the drinks were arranged at the instruction of Kim Jong-un, who ordered officials to take special measures to protect the health of mourners.

“Deeply moved by the measures, all of the Korean people feel that Kim Jong-un is the leader of the people, as great as Kim Jong-il,” KCNA said.

Associated Press writers Foster Klug and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and AP Korea Bureau Chief Jean H. Lee contributed to this report.

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