Jang Song-thaek puts on uniform

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Jang Song-thaek puts on uniform


Kim Jong-un, center, stands among a row of top military officers, including Jang Song-thaek, left, as they pay their respects to former leader Kim Jong-il at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, in this still picture taken from video footage aired by Korean Central TV of the North, yesterday. The footage showed Jang, who is Kim Jong-un’s uncle and the power behind the communist state’s throne, wearing a military uniform with the insignia of a general, another sign of his rising influence after the death of Kim Jong-il. [REUTERS]

PYONGYANG - North Korea yesterday aired footage 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.

The footage on state television shows Jang Song-thaek in uniform as he pays respects at Kim Jong-il’s body lying in state at Kumsusan Memorial Palace. Seoul’s Ministry of Unification says it’s the first time Jang, usually seen in business suits, has been shown wearing a military uniform on state TV.

Little by little, North Korea is offering hints on the details of Kim Jong-un’s rise and the future composition of his inner circle as millions continue to mourn for his father, who died Dec. 17. North Korea has also begun hailing Kim Jong-un as “supreme leader’’ of the 1.2-million strong military as it ramps up its campaign to install him as ruler.

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

South Korean intelligence has reportedly predicted Kim Jong-un’s aunt Kim Kyong-hui, a key Workers’ Party official, and her husband Jang, who is a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, will play larger roles supporting the heir.

Jang and his wife have risen to the top of North Korea’s political and military elite since the succession campaign began two years ago. Both 65, they also have the weight of seniority, which is important in a society that places a premium on age and alliances.

Kim Jong-un made a third visit Saturday to 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 the official Korean Central News Agency.

Earlier, the newspaper Rodong Sinmun, mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party, 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, who is in his late 20s, will be the third-generation Kim to rule the nation of 24 million. His father and grandfather led the country under different titles, and it remains unclear which other titles will be bestowed on the grandson.

Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea in 1948, retains the title of “eternal president’’ even after his death in 1994.

Son Kim Jong-il ruled as chairman of the National Defense Commission, supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army and general secretary of the Workers’ Party.

Kim Jong-un was promoted 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. 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 Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday.

North Korea has emphasized the Kim family legacy during the sped-up succession movement for Kim Jong-un. State media invoked Kim Il Sung in declaring the people’s support for the next leader, comparing the occasion to Kim Jong-il’s ascension to “supreme commander’’ exactly 20 years ago Saturday.

At the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Kim Jong-un and senior commanders paid silent tribute to Kim Jong-il, “praying for his immortality,’’ KCNA said. The military also pledged its loyalty to Kim Jong-un, the report said.

“Let the whole army remain true to the leadership of Kim Jong-un over the army,’’ KCNA reported - a pledge reminiscent of those made when Kim Jong-il was named supreme commander.

The call 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, comes amid displays of grief across North Korea. The official mourning period lasts until after Kim’s funeral Wednesday and a memorial Thursday.

In Pyongyang, workers at beverage kiosks handed steaming cups of water to shivering mourners. A throng of North Koreans climbed steps and placed flowers and wreaths in a neat row below a portrait of Kim Jong-il.

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