- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2012

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — A senior North Korean party official dismissed concerns about Kim Jong-un’s readiness to lead, saying he spent years working closely with his late father and helped him make key policy decisions on economic and military affairs.

In the first interview with foreign journalists by a high-level North Korean official since Kim Jong-il’s Dec. 17 death, Yang Hyong-sop, a Politburo member and Kim family confidante, told the Associated Press that North Koreans were in good hands with their young new leader. He emphasized an unbroken continuity from father to son that suggests a continuation of Kim Jong-il’s key policies.

“We suffered the greatest loss in the history of our nation as a result of the sudden, unexpected and tragic loss of the great leader Kim Jong-il,” he said in the interview Monday at Mansudae Assembly Hall, seat of the North Korean legislative body.

“But still, we are not worried a bit,” he added, “because we know that we are being led by Comrade Kim Jong-un, who is fully prepared to carry on the heritage created by the great Gen. Kim Jong-il.”

Daily life in this cold, somber capital has begun to return to normal one month after Kim’s death, reportedly from a heart attack while riding on his private train.

The white mourning bouquets and massive portraits of the departed leader have been cleared from Pyongyang’s main buildings and monuments. People are busy getting back to daily life, with children whizzing down icy slopes on wooden sleds and workers running to catch morning buses and trams as the Kim Jong-un ode “Footsteps” blares over loudspeakers.

Vast Kim Il-sung Square, where a sea of mourners converged after Kim’s death, was ghostly quiet except for a few people who scurried quickly across the frigid plaza.

In recent weeks, as North Koreans filled the capital’s streets with their emotive mourning and the government staged elaborate funeral proceedings, party and military officials moved quickly to install Kim’s son as “supreme leader” of the people, party and military.

For most of his life, Kim Jong-un was kept out of the public eye before suddenly emerging as his father’s heir in September 2010. Though still in his 20s, he quickly was promoted to four-star general and named a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

But the new ruler’s youth and quick ascension to power have raised questions in foreign capitals about how ready he is to inherit rule over this nation of 24 million with a nuclear program as well chronic trouble feeding all its people.

Mr. Yang said he had no concerns about Mr. Kim’s ability to lead.

“The respected Comrade Kim Jong-un had long assisted the great Gen. Kim Jong-il,” he told AP. “It’s not a secret that he has helped the great general in many different aspects — not only in military affairs but also the economy and other areas as well.”

A soft-spoken octogenarian who is vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and a standing member of the powerful Political Bureau of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, Mr. Yang has long-standing ties with the Kim family that stretch back to his close alliance with the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung.

During a 2010 interview with Associated Press Television News in Pyongyang, he provided the first confirmation by a government official that Kim Jong-un eventually would become the nation’s next leader.

“He knows what the exact intention of the great Gen. Kim Jong-il was,” he said Monday.

His comments this week indicated there would be little change to major policies laid out by Kim Jong-un’s father in the three years before his death. Mr. Yang said the new leader was focused on a “knowledge-based” economy and looking at economic reforms enacted by other nations, including China.

The North increasingly has looked to China for guidance on how to revitalize its moribund economy, particularly as South Korea, Japan and other nations have frozen trade and aid to the North amid concerns about its nuclear ambitions.

Little is known about Kim Jong-un’s background and experience, though North Koreans have been told he studied at Kim Il-sung Military University and was involved in military operations such as the November 2010 artillery attack on a South Korean island that killed four South Koreans.

Earlier this month, North Korea’s state-run broadcaster aired a documentary about the new leader that began filling in some blanks from before his public debut.

The footage shows him observing the April 2009 launch of a long-range rocket and quotes him threatening to wage war against any nation attempting to intercept the rocket, which North Korea claimed was carrying a communications satellite but the United States, South Korea and Japan said was really a test of its long-range missile technology.

It was the first indication of his involvement in that controversial launch.

Yet if Kim Jong-un was playing a prominent behind-the-scenes role before 2010, his training period would have been much shorter than that of Kim Jong-il, who spent 20 years working under his own father, Kim Il-sung. Even after his father’s death, Kim Jong-il observed a three-year mourning period before formally assuming leadership.

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