PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — A senior North Korean official dismissed concerns about Kim Jong Un's readiness to lead, saying he spent years working closely with his late father and helping him make key policy decisions on economic and military affairs.
In the first interview with foreign journalists by a high-level North Korean official since Kim Jong Il's Dec. 17 death, Politburo member and Kim family confidante Yang Hyong Sop told The Associated Press that North Koreans were in good hands with their young new leader. He emphasized an unbroken continuity from father to son that suggests a continuation of Kim Jong Il's key policies.
"We suffered the greatest loss in the history of our nation as a result of the sudden, unexpected and tragic loss of the great leader Kim Jong Il," he said in the interview Monday at Mansudae Assembly Hall, seat of the North Korean legislative body.
"But still, we are not worried a bit," he added, "because we know that we are being led by comrade Kim Jong Un, who is fully prepared to carry on the heritage created by the great Gen. Kim Jong Il."
Despite Yang's assertion of a lengthy behind-the-scenes role for Kim Jong Un, the world was introduced to the heir only in September 2010, prior to which he had been kept out of the public eye for most of his life. Though still in his 20s, he was quickly promoted to four-star general and named a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea.
The new ruler's youth and quick ascension to power have raised questions in foreign capitals about how ready he is to rule over this nation of 24 million with a nuclear program as well as chronic trouble feeding all its people.
Yang said he had no concerns about Kim's ability to lead.
"The respected comrade Kim Jong Un had long assisted the great Gen. Kim Jong Il," he told AP. "It's not a secret that he has helped the great general in many different aspects — not only in military affairs but also the economy and other areas as well."
Daily life in this cold, somber capital has begun to return to normal one month after Kim's death, reportedly from a heart attack while riding on his private train.
The white mourning bouquets and massive portraits of the departed leader have been cleared from Pyongyang's main buildings and monuments. People are busy getting back to daily life, with children whizzing down icy slopes on wooden sleds and workers running to catch morning buses and trams as the Kim Jong Un ode "Footsteps" blares over loudspeakers.
Vast Kim Il Sung Square, where a sea of mourners converged after Kim's death, was ghostly quiet except for a few people who scurried quickly across the frigid plaza.
In recent weeks, as North Koreans filled the capital's streets with their emotive mourning and the government staged elaborate funeral proceedings, party and military officials moved quickly to install Kim's son as "supreme leader" of the people, party and military.
A soft-spoken octogenarian who is vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly and a standing member of the powerful Political Bureau of the Communist party's Central Committee, Yang has long-standing ties with the Kim family that stretch back to his close alliance with the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung.
During a 2010 interview with Associated Press Television News in Pyongyang, he provided the first confirmation by a government official that Kim Jong Un would eventually become the nation's next leader.
"He knows what the exact intention of the great Gen. Kim Jong Il was," he said Monday.
His comments this week indicated there would be little change to major policies laid out by Kim Jong Un's father in the three years before his death. Yang said the new leader was focused on a "knowledge-based" economy and looking at economic reforms enacted by other nations, including China.
The North has increasingly looked to China for guidance on how to revitalize its moribund economy, particularly as South Korea, Japan and other nations have frozen trade and aid to the North amid concerns about its nuclear ambitions.
Little is known about Kim Jong Un's background and experience, though North Koreans have been told he studied at Kim Il Sung Military University and was involved in military operations such as the November 2010 artillery attack on a South Korean island that killed four South Koreans.
Earlier this month, North Korea's state-run broadcaster aired a documentary about the new leader that began filling in some blanks from before his public debut.
The footage shows him observing the April 2009 launch of a long-range rocket and quotes him threatening to wage war against any nation attempting to intercept the rocket, which North Korea claimed was carrying a communications satellite but the United States, South Korea and Japan say was really a test of its long-range missile technology.
It was the first indication of his involvement in that controversial launch.
Yet if Kim Jong Un was playing a prominent behind-the-scenes role prior to 2010, his training period would have been much shorter than that of his Kim Jong Il, who spent 20 years working under his own father, Kim Il Sung. Even after his father's death, Kim Jong Il observed a three-year mourning period before formally assuming leadership.
Follow AP's Korea Bureau Chief Jean H. Lee at twitter.com/newsjean and Chief Asia Photographer David Guttenfelder at twitter.com/dguttenfelder.