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N. Korea leader gains recognition amid visit from South delegation

North Korea's next leader Kim Jong Un welcomed a private South Korean mourning delegation Monday a week after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

Kim Jong Un has rapidly gained prominence since the Dec. 17 death of his father, and his brief meeting 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.

State media have showered Kim with new titles. Saturday, 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.

Monday, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper described him as head of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party -- a post that appears to make him the top official in the ruling party.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency also called Kim Jong Un a "sagacious leader" and "dear" comrade while reporting that he paid respects Monday to his father, whose body is lying in state at Kumsusan Memorial Palace.

It was the fourth time the North's media reported that the younger Kim had visited the memorial palace, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.

A South Korean delegation stood in a line on a red carpet and bowed silently during their visit to the Kumsusan palace, where Kim's bier is surrounded by flowers and flanked by an honor guard.

Kim Jong Un thanked the South Koreans after they expressed condolences and sympathy, KCNA said.

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.

Their meeting with Kim Jong Un could be intended to push South Korea to pursue previously agreed upon cooperative projects that would give North Korea much-needed hard currency, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies.

Footage from AP Television News in North Korea earlier showed the South Koreans being greeted by North Korean officials during a stop at a factory park in the North Korean town of Kaesong. North Korea sent delegations to Seoul when the women's husbands died.

Monday's meeting appeared to be Kim Jong Un's first reported meeting with South Koreans since his father's death.

The Kim family has extended its control over the country of 24 million people to a third generation with Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s and was revealed last year as his father's choice among three sons for successor.

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.

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