Asia-Pacific News

New North Korean Leader Ascends to Head of Party

Choe Sang-Hun|The New York Times

Kim Jong-un, the newly anointed leader of North Korea, met on Monday with a private delegation of prominent South Koreans, his first face-to-face encounter with any visitors from the estranged South since assuming the top spot a week ago when his father’s death was announced.

North Korean defectors hold defaced posters of North Korea leader Kim Jong-Il and his son Jong-un as they participate in a anti-North Korea protest in front of the South Korean Defense Ministry on November 29, 2010 in Seoul, South Korea. Tensions between the two Koreas remain high following an artillery exchange on the disputed island of Yeonpyeong on November 24.
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The meeting, scrutinized for any hint of Mr. Kim’s intentions toward South Korea, came as the official North Korean media announced he had been appointed to the top post of the ruling party, another step in what appeared to be a choreographed sequence of events meant to show that he was assuming all the key positions held by his father, Kim Jong-il, the longtime ruler of the isolated North.

South Korea had said it would send no official mourners to Kim Jong-il’s funeral, which angered North Korea as a sign of disrespect. But Kim Jong-un’s meeting with the private delegation of mourners, which included the former first lady of South Korea and a top business woman, appeared to be cordial.

The South Korean visitors, Lee Hee-ho, the widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, and the chairwoman of Hyundai-Asan, Hyun Jeong- eun, which had business ties with North Korea, were the only South Koreans allowed by the government in Seoul to lead private delegations to Pyongyang to express sympathy over the Dec. 17 death of Kim Jong-il.

They conveyed their condolences at Pyongyang’s Kumsusan mausoleum, where Kim Jong-il lay in state, according to the South Korean government.

Mr. Kim thanked the South Korean visitors, the North Korean official news agency, K.C.N.A, said.

Ms. Lee and Ms. Hyun laid their wreathes and walked around Kim Jong-il’s glass coffin to show their respect, K.C.N.A said. In a message in the visitors’ log, Ms. Lee wrote that she hoped the two Koreas would achieve an “early reunification” by honoring a 2000 summit agreement in which her husband and Kim Jong-il had promised to encourage political reconciliation and economic exchanges.

Kim Jong-il’s funeral is set to take place on Wednesday, and a memorial is scheduled for Thursday.

Kim Jong-un’s announced elevation to the leadership post of the Workers’ Party’s Central Committee came two days after the North’s state-run news media published an entreaty for him to become supreme commander of the country’s Korean People’s Army, whose support is considered crucial to his consolidation of power. The top brass also moved quickly to swear their allegiance to Mr. Kim.

Since Kim Jong-il’s death was announced on Dec. 19, a series of pronouncements from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, have indicated that Kim Jong-un, his third and youngest son, was rapidly consolidating his grip on power by assuming top titles, or that whoever was rallying the key agencies of power behind the young leader was ensuring that the son would not share power, at least in the public eye.

The younger Mr. Kim, his father’s third son, is believed to be in his late 20s. There has been no indication that he had worked in the government or the military before his father, who had a stroke in 2008, unveiled him as his successor last year and put him on a fast track to be groomed as heir.

On Monday, the North’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, urged North Koreans to “defend the party’s Central Committee headed by respected Comrade Kim Jong-un.”

The same slogan was used for his father when he was alive. Over the weekend, the North Korean media were blessing the son with the same honorifics until now reserved for his father: “heaven-sent leader,” “the sun of the 21st century” and eobeoi, the Korean word for parent, which North Korea has used only for Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim Il-sung, the North’s founding president.

Under the charter of the Workers’ Party, the head of its Central Committee doubles not only as general secretary but also as chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission.

Kim Jong-un was made vice chairman of the Central Military Commission when he was anointed as successor.

The Seoul government said that Ms. Lee and Ms. Hyun were reciprocating for the North Korean delegations that visited Seoul to express condolences over the deaths of President Kim Dae-jung and of Chung Mong-hun, the former Hyundai chairman.

Hyundai-Asan led a flurry of South Korean investments that followed a 2000 summit meeting between the two Koreas. But the South suspended its signature project in North Korea — a hiking and spa resort near the North’s Diamond Mountain — after North Korean guards shot a female South Korean tourist who had strayed off the resort in 2008.

“I hope my trip will help improve South-North relations,” Ms. Lee told reporters before crossing the border on Monday.

On Sunday, striking a typically strident note, North Korea reiterated that if the South blocked private delegations from visiting Pyongyang for Mr. Kim’s funeral on Wednesday, there would be “unimaginably disastrous consequences” for relations between the two.