PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea hailed Kim Jong Il’s son as “supreme leader” of the 1.2-million strong military, ramping up its campaign to install the young man as the nation’s next leader even as the mourning for his father continued a week after his death.
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.
The new title and public show of support from the military leadership sent a strong signal that the nation will maintain Kim Jong Il’s “military first” policy for the time being.
Earlier Saturday, 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 and was unveiled in September 2010 as his father’s choice as successor, 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, which was in the middle of discussions with the U.S. on food aid and restarting talks to dismantle the North’s nuclear weapons program. 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, mourners waited in line Saturday to bow and lay flowers at Kim’s portrait at plazas and government buildings, including the Pyongyang Circus Theater and the April 25 People’s Army House of Culture, even as temperatures dropped to 14 degrees below Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit).
Workers at beverage kiosks handed steaming cups of water to shivering mourners, including children bundled up in colorful thick parkas. A sign urged mourners to thaw out inside a heated bus. The order to provide food and warming huts for mourners came from Kim Jong Un, officials said.
Earlier, a throng of North Koreans climbed steps and placed flowers and wreaths in a neat row below a portrait of Kim Jong Il as solemn music filled the air and young uniformed soldiers, their heads shaved, bowed before his picture.
A sobbing Jong Myong Hui, a Pyongyang citizen taking a break from shoveling snow, told AP Television News that she came out voluntarily to “clear the way for Kim Jong Il’s last journey.”
For days, life in Pyongyang had come to a standstill, with shops and restaurants closed. Downtown Koryo Hotel, one of several in Pyongyang catering to foreigners, was nearly empty.
But there are signs that the country is beginning to move on.
“Streets, buses and the metro are all crowded with people going to their work. They are not giving way simply to sorrow,” KCNA said. “They are getting over the demise of their leader, promoted by a strong will to closely rally around respected Comrade Kim Jong Un.”
Among the mourners Saturday was a son of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the South Korean-based Unification Church, which has longstanding ties with North Korea. The Rev. Hyung-jin Moon helped carry a wreath to the main mourning site at Kim Il Sung Square in central Pyongyang.
The Korean peninsula has remained in a technical state of war since the Koreas’ 1950-53 conflict, but two groups from South Korea have permission from the South Korean government to visit the North to pay their respects, Unification Ministry spokesman Choi Boh-seon said Saturday in Seoul.
One group will be led by the widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, who held a landmark summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000, and the other by the wife of a late businessman with ties to the North.
Citizens in Pyongyang, meanwhile, received a last gift from the late Kim Jong Il: fish. State-run media said Kim was worried about the supply of fish and had looked into the matter the day before he died.
Rodong Sinmun showed a photo of a woman covering her mouth as she watched herring and walleye being distributed at a crowded grocery store where they were piled up in baskets.
Associated Press writer Foster Klug in Seoul, South Korea, and AP Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee contributed to this report. Follow them on Twitter at twitter.com/newsjean and twitter.com/APKlug.