PYONGYANG, North Korea — Wherever North Korea's young new leader goes, they're there: a group of graying military and political officials who shadow Kim Jong Un as he visits army bases, attends concerts and tours schools.
As Kim Jong Un steps into the role of "supreme commander" less than two months after his father's death, these officials can be seen in the background. They listen attentively as their leader speaks during "guidance visits" and stand at his side during group photos, smiling and clapping.
Since Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack in December, Kim Jong Un has assumed the mantle of leadership with apparent confidence. But this aging circle of advisers is never far behind, lending the young man gravitas and experience while making clear that he has the backing of the powerful military.
The world has been watching for signs of trouble as Kim, believed to be in his late 20s, leads North Korea just three years after he was tapped to be his father's successor.
His ascension comes at a delicate time. Kim Jong Il died as diplomats were in the midst of negotiating with Washington on much-needed aid to alleviate a chronic food shortage. There were also discussions between North Korea and its neighbors on the prospect of restarting nuclear disarmament negotiations.
The show of support by the nation's core military and political leadership settles a major question about the new era under Kim Jong Un: Kim Jong Il's "military first" policy will remain in place. And it's clear that these men, many now in their 70s and 80s, will continue to advise Kim Jong Un after years of working with his father and even his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung.
The "central" leadership stepped into the spotlight most vividly during Kim Jong Il's funeral in a tableau watched as closely here in Pyongyang as it was in Seoul and Washington for signs indicating who is in power in North Korea's opaque political system.
On that day, in a swirl of snow, eight men accompanied the black limousine bearing Kim's flag-draped coffin: Kim Jong Un and seven elderly men who represent the topmost levels of North Korea's military and political circles.
At the front of the hearse, opposite Kim Jong Un, walked Ri Yong Ho, vice marshal of the Korean People's Army and the military's General Staff chief.
Ri wields power from his position at the intersection of three crucial institutions: the Korean People's Army, the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers' Party and the Standing Committee of the party's influential Political Bureau.
While the Workers' Party of Korea has served as the backbone of the power structure since Kim Il Sung founded the country in 1948, Kim Jong Il elevated the military when he became leader after his father's death in 1994.
Ri, who has operational control of the army, also oversees an influential Kim Jong Un support group comprising officers in their 50s and 60s who commanders consider rising stars, according to Ken Gause, a North Korea specialist at CNA, a U.S.-based research organization.
A stern figure, Ri stood between Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un in October 2010 as they watched a massive military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the Workers' Party. He occasionally leaned over to whisper to the son, who was making his international public debut. And Ri stood at Kim Jong Un's side following Kim Jong Il's funeral. Ri is 69, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry, which provided the birth dates of all seven figures.
Walking directly behind the young leader during the funeral procession was his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, husband of Kim Jong Il's younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, who is also an important Kim Jong Un patron.
Jang, 65, is a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. Under the constitution, the commission is the country's highest military body, and Kim Jong Il led the country as chairman.
Jang apparently is involved in big economic projects and oversees internal security offices, according to Nicholas Hamisevicz, director of research and academic affairs for the Korea Economic Institute in Washington. Jang was a frequent companion to Kim Jong Il on field inspection trips last year.
"He is thought to be helping groom Kim Jong Un by providing him information as well as some political protection," Hamisevicz said.
Also escorting Kim's hearse was People's Armed Forces Minister Kim Yong Chun, who controls military logistics and training, according to Gause. In a Jan. 28 state media report, Kim Yong Chun, 75, was mentioned second only to Ri Yong Ho in a list of top aides who accompanied Kim Jong Un to a military concert.
Kim Ki Nam, 82, is credited with orchestrating the legends surrounding the Kim family and serves as the main ideologue for the country, according to the World Institute for North Korea Studies in South Korea.
Kim Jong Gak is a senior political officer in the Korean People's Army, while U Tong Chuk is a top state security official. On Jan. 9, Kim Jong Gak was mentioned prominently at a massive rally of army, navy and air force troops pledging loyalty to Kim Jong Un. U Tong Chuk has attended two concerts with the new leader this year, according to state media.
Rounding out the entourage in the funeral procession was Choe Thae Bok, the longtime chairman of the Supreme People's Assembly and a member of the Politburo who has led a number of North Korean delegations overseas. Choe is 81, according to the South Korean government.
Other important advisers include Premier Choe Yong Rim, who despite being in his 80s has been making the types of inspection trips to factories, construction sites and power plants that were once Kim Jong Il's purview; and Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly and the country's nominal head of state.
Two other top officers, wearing gray parkas, have accompanied Kim on military inspections recently: Kim Myong Guk, a 71-year-old General Staff director of operations; and Kim Won Hong, a top political officer who is reportedly in charge of military personnel appointments. Gause says Kim Won Hong heads one of the bodies that form an "inner ring for internal security inside North Korea."
One of these men is invariably at Kim Jong Un's side. State media, in a dispatch released early Wednesday, said Ri Yong Ho, Kim Yong Chun and Kim Myong Guk accompanied Kim Jong Un on a tour of an army unit, the latest in a string of military visits by the new leader.Comment on this story
"While Kim might enjoy real authority, it is his relationship with the leadership support system around him that will determine the latitude he has to make decisions on his own," Gause said.
The elderly leaders who lived through the Korean War are being replaced by a new generation of senior leaders in their 40s, 50s and 60s and numbering perhaps 5,000, according to a recent report by Peter Hayes, Scott Bruce and David von Hippel of the Nautilus Institute think tank.
The analysts said Kim Jong Un and his "senior advisers are likely to seek continuity with the past as the basis for smooth sailing in 2012 while they concentrate on domestic issues."
Klug reported from Seoul, South Korea. Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Sam Kim also contributed to this story from Seoul. Follow AP Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee at twitter.com/newsjean and Foster Klug at twitter.com/APklug.