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North Korea declares Kim Jong Un as country's new 'supreme leader'

North Korea declared Kim Jong Il's son and successor "supreme leader" during a memorial Thursday for his father in the government's first public endorsement of his leadership.
/ Source: news services

North Korea declared Kim Jong Il's son and successor "supreme leader" of the ruling party, military and the people during a memorial Thursday for his father in the government's first public endorsement of his leadership.

Kim Jong Un, head bowed and somber in a dark overcoat, stood on a balcony at the Grand People's Study House overlooking Kim Il Sung Square watching the memorial, which also served as a show of support for North Korea's next leader. He was flanked by top party and military officials, including Kim Jong Il's younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, and her husband Jang Song Thaek, who are expected to serve as mentors of their young nephew.

Solemn and grimacing, the younger Kim stood motionless throughout the ceremony.

Given Kim Jong Un's inexperience and age — he is in his late 20s — there are questions outside North Korea about whether he is equipped to lead a nation engaged in long-stalled negotiations over its nuclear program and grappling with decades of economic hardship and chronic food shortages.

But support among North Korea's power brokers was unequivocal at the memorial service, attended by hundreds of thousands of people filling Kim Il Sung Square and other plazas in central Pyongyang.

"The fact that he completely resolved the succession matter is Great Comrade Kim Jong Il's most noble achievement," Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, told the massive audience at the square.

"Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un is our party, military and country's supreme leader who inherits great comrade Kim Jong Il's ideology, leadership, character, virtues, grit and courage," said Kim, considered North Korea's ceremonial head of state. "Kim Jong Il laid a red silk carpet, and Kim Jong Un only needs to walk on it."

Thursday's memorial "was an event to publicly reconfirm and solidify" Kim Jong Un's status, said Jeung Young-tae, an analyst with the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, South Korea.

"Kim Jong Un is already the leader of the party, military and country," he said.

'World-class military power'
Life in the North Korean capital came to a standstill as a mourners blanketed the plaza from the Grand People's Study to the Taedong River for the second day of funeral ceremonies for the late leader.

Reuters reported that temperatures that stood at about 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 degrees Celsius) during the event. State TV showed a delegation of foreigners attending the memorial.

During the eulogy, Kim Yong Nam also said that Kim Jong Il "laid the foundation for our people to live on as autonomous people of a world-class military power and a proud nuclear state."

The North has conducted two nuclear tests.

The eulogies were short on boasts about economic achievements from a strongman who used his "military first" policy to divert resources to build a conventional and weapons of mass destruction program.

The North's economic output is now smaller than in the 1990s under the rule of his father Kim Il Sung, who founded the state in 1948, and it has been squeezed harder under international sanctions for its missile and nuclear tests.

Kim Jong Il, who led his 24 million people with absolute power for 17 years, died of a heart attack Dec. 17 aged 69, according to state media. He inherited power from his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, who died of a heart attack in 1994, in what was the communist world's first hereditary succession.

Attention turned to Kim Jong Un after he was revealed last year as his father's choice among three known sons to carry the Kim dynasty into a third generation.

Kim Jong Il's two other sons, Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chol, were not spotted at either the funeral or memorial.

North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-un (2nd L) looks on, next to Chief of General Staff of the Korea People's Army Ri Yong-ho (L), during the memorial for late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, in this still image taken from video December 29, 2011. North Korea's military staged a huge funeral procession on Wednesday in the snowy streets of the capital Pyongyang for its deceased \"dear leader,\" Kim Jong-il, readying a transition to his son, Kim Jong-un. REUTERS/KRT via Reuters TV (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS OBITUARY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTSX00514

The process to groom Kim Jong Un was rushed compared to the 20 years Kim Jong Il had to prepare to take over from his father, and relied heavily on the Kim family bloodline and legacy as guerrilla fighters and the nation's founders.

Kim Il Sung is North Korea's first and only president; he retains the title "Eternal President" even after his death.

Kim Jong Il held three main positions: chairman of the National Defense Commission, general secretary of the Workers' Party and supreme commander of the Korean People's Army.

According to the constitution, his position as chairman of the National Defense Commission makes him "supreme leader" of North Korea.

However, it may take Kim Jong Un some months to assume the full panoply of official titles held by his father.

"The real question is whether the new Kim has the cruelty and cunning, qualities that his father and grandfather Kim Il Sung possessed in plenty, to preserve in the long run the essential engine of the destitute dynasty he inherits," wrote Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts University, a leading North Korea watcher.