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North Korean power-behind-throne emerges as neighbors meet

New North Korean leader Kim Jong-un walks with a row of top military officers at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang
New North Korean leader Kim Jong-un walks with a row of top military officers at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang

By Sung-won Shim and Kiyoshi Takenaka

SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korean television Sunday showed power-behind-the-throne Jang Song-thaek in the uniform of a general in a sign of his growing sway after the death of Kim Jong-il, and Japan's prime minister said the region faced a new phase with Kim's demise.

Footage that North Korean television said was shot on Saturday showed Jang on the frontrow of top military officers who accompanied Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of Kim Jong-il and his anointed successor, paying their respects before Kim's body.

The choreography around Kim's death is one of the secretive North's few, opaque clues to the emerging configuration of power in this poor and isolated state that has rattled neighbors with nuclear tests and military brinkmanship.

A Seoul official familiar with North Korea affairs said it was the first time Jang has been shown on state television in a military uniform. His appearance suggested that Jang has secured a key role in the North's powerful military, which has pledged its allegiance to Kim Jong-un.

North Korea announced Monday Kim Jong-il had died of a heart attack on December 17. His body is lying in state in a mausoleum in Pyongyang. He was believed to be 69.

Kim Jong-un was hailed by state media Saturday as "supreme commander" of the North's 1.1 million-strong armed forces, the title held by his father.

A senior source told Reuters this week Pyongyang will shift from a strongman dictatorship to a coterie of rulers including the military and Jang, Kim Jong-un's uncle.

Jang married the daughter of the country's revolutionary founder, Kim Il-sung, in 1972, joining the ruling family that has forged its own form of dynastic rule.

"AN NEW PHASE"

In Beijing, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that their two countries shared a stake in preserving stability in North Korea in a "new phase."

"The death of Secretary-General Kim Jong-il has brought East Asia to a new phase," Noda told Wen at the start of bilateral talks in China's capital.

Noda is the first regional leader to visit Beijing since Kim Jong-il's death was announced Monday, leaving his young son Kim Jong-un as leader of North Korea, which has rattled the region with nuclear tests and military confrontation.

But Beijing is acutely sensitive about upsetting North Korea, especially during the current delicate transition, and Wen and Noda kept their public remarks free of controversy.

"Both sides agreed that preserving the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula serves the interests of all sides," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in its account of their talks, according to the ministry website (www.mfa.gov.cn).

Wen and Noda also agreed on seeking an early restart of the six-party nuclear disarmament talks that North Korea abandoned.

China is North Korea's sole major economic and diplomatic partner, and the United States and its regional allies have long pressed Beijing to use its influence to rein in Pyongyang.

China has sought to defuse confrontation by hosting six-party nuclear disarmament talks since August 2003. The now-stalled negotiations bring together North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.

In April 2009, North Korea said it was quitting the talks and reversing nuclear "disablement" steps, unhappy with implementation of an initial disarmament deal.

Constraining North Korea is especially important for Japan, which is well within range of the North's long-range missiles and wants Pyongyang to resolve the emotive issue of the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped to help train spies decades ago.

"It is very significant that we affirmed close communication with China, the chair country of the six-party talks," Noda told reporters after his meeting with Wen.

"We agreed that we need to address the (North Korean) issue calmly and properly and to keep close contact with each other."

(Writing and additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)

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