North Korea's next leader is burnishing his diplomatic skills in the wake of his father's death, welcoming a private South Korean mourning delegation as he strengthens his position at the top the country's ruling structure.
Kim Jong Un has rapidly gained prominence since the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, on Dec. 17, and his brief meeting Monday with a group led by a former South Korean first lady and a prominent business leader shows Seoul that he is assured in his new role. The South Koreans were scheduled to return home Tuesday.
It seems clear now that Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s, is now in position to extend the Kim family's control over the country of 24 million people to a third generation. His grandfather Kim Il Sung, a revered figure, founded North Korea in 1948 and was succeeded by Kim Jong Il, who ruled for 17 years.
Just as North Korea created a cult of personality around the previous two Kims, the youngest Kim has also been showered with intense praise and new titles in the state media.
The main Rodong Sinmun newspaper described him Monday as head of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party _ a post that appears to make him the top official in the ruling party. Earlier, the North referred to him as "supreme leader" of the 1.2 million-strong armed forces and said the military's top leaders had pledged their loyalty to him.
Late Monday, Pyongyang called Kim a "sagacious leader" and "dear" comrade as he again paid respects to his father, whose body is lying in state at Kumsusan Memorial Palace. State media have already dubbed him as a "great successor" and "outstanding leader."
The official Korean Central News Agency also indicated that Kim will uphold his father's "military-first" policy.
"As dear comrade Kim Jong Un, who is a sagacious leader of our party, state and military, is at the forefront of our revolutionary cause, the history of our father and general's glorious military-first revolution will continue," it said.
During Kim's meeting with the private delegation of South Koreans, he thanked them after they expressed condolences and sympathy over his father's death.
The lead delegates were the widow of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who engineered a "sunshine" engagement policy with the North and held a landmark summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000, and Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun, whose late husband had ties to the North. North Korea sent delegations to Seoul when the women's husbands died.
They stood in a line on a red carpet and bowed silently during their visit to the Kumsusan palace, where Kim Jong Il's bier is surrounded by flowers and flanked by an honor guard, footage from AP Television News in Pyongyang showed. Kim Jong Un and the two women later exchanged handshakes and clasped their hands when they had brief conversations. Their conversations were inaudible.
Through the meeting, Kim appeared to be sending a message pushing South Korea to pursue previously agreed upon cooperative projects that would give his country much-needed hard currency, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies.
Monday's meeting appeared to be Kim's first meeting with South Koreans since his father's death. It was also the fourth time the North's media reported that Kim had visited the memorial palace since his father's death, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.
On Tuesday, the two lead South Korean delegates met Kim Yong Nam, president of Presidium of North Korea's parliament, who often represents the country and is considered a nominal head of state, according to the APTN footage. The delegates were to return to South Korea later in the day.
Kim Jong Un's new titles are slight variations of those held by his father, but appear to carry the same weight. It was unclear whether the nation's constitution had been changed to reflect the transfer of leadership as when Kim Jong Il took power after his father's death.
Mourning continued, meanwhile, despite frigid winter weather, in the final days before Kim Jong Il's funeral, which is set to take place Wednesday, and a memorial Thursday.
People continued lining up in central Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square, where a massive portrait that usually features Kim Il Sung has been replaced by one of Kim Jong Il, to bow before his smiling image and to lay funeral flowers. Heated buses stood by to give mourners a respite from the cold, and hot tea and water were distributed from beverage kiosks.
Associated Press writers Foster Klug, Hyung-jin Kim and Jiyoung Won in Seoul, South Korea, and AP Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee contributed to this report. Follow AP's Korea coverage at twitter.com/newsjean and twitter.com/APKlug.