Korea continues along military lines

North Korea has started showing the uncle of anointed heir Kim Jong Un wearing a military uniform with a general’s insignia – a strong sign he will play a crucial role in upholding the “military-first” policy in North Korea.

As the country prepares for Kim Jong Il’s funeral on Wednesday, it is also warning South Korea against barring visits to Pyongyang by civilian groups hoping to pay respects, saying the obstruction will have to “catastrophic consequences” for relations between the rivals.

While millions continue to mourn Kim Jong Il, North Korea is offering hints about Kim Jong Un’s rise and the future composition of his inner circle.

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North Korea began hailing Kim Jong Un as “supreme leader” of the 1.2-million strong military over the weekend as it ramps up its campaign to install him as ruler.

Koreans should become “eternal revolutionary comrades” with Kim Jong Un, “the sun of the 21st century,” the North’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said yesterday in a commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

State television showed footage of a uniformed Jang Song Thaek and his nephew Kim Jong Un paying their respects before Kim Jong Il’s body, which is lying in state at Kumsusan Memorial Palace.

In South Korea, the Unification Ministry said it was the first time Jang, who is usually seen in business suits, had been shown wearing a military uniform. Jang, a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, is the husband of Kim Kyong Hui, younger sister of Kim Jong Il and a key Workers’ Party official.

South Korean lawmakers say intelligence officials have predicted that Jang and his wife will play larger roles supporting Kim Jong Un.

The new titles, a public show of support from top military leadership and the symbolic appearance of Jang in uniform send strong signals that North Korea will maintain Kim Jong Il’s “military first” policy for the time being.

On Saturday, Kim Jong Un again visited 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 KCNA.

Earlier, Rodong Sinmun urged Kim Jong Un to accept the top military post: “Comrade Kim Jong Un, please assume the supreme commandership, as wished by the people.”

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Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather led the country under different titles, and it remains unclear which other titles will be bestowed on him. He was promoted to four-star general last year. His father’s death comes at a sensitive time for North Korea, which was in the middle of discussions with the US on food aid and restarting talks to dismantle the North’s nuclear weapons programme.

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 the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and the late father of Kim Jong Il.

Animosity with South Korea still lingers after two incidents blamed on North Korea in which 50 South Koreans died last year.