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Kim Jong Il officially takes N. Korea party reins

Kim Jong Il, North Korea's undisputed leader for the last three years, was formally named head of the ruling party Wednesday, taking on one of the formal titles left vacant by his father's death in 1994.

Kim's long-anticipated election as general-secretary of the Workers Party of Korea was announced in a special communique by the party's Central Committee and the Central Military Commission.Most analysts expect Kim to cautiously open up reclusive North Korea, which lost many of its ties to the outside world with the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

There had been little doubt the younger Kim would succeed his father, Kim Il Sung, who died of a heart attack in July 1994. The only question had been how long he would leave the posts nominally vacant as a sign of respect and mourning.

Kim, 55, has been North Korea's undisputed leader since his father's death. Even before then, he had been named head of the country's 1.1 million-strong military and anointed to succeed his father as party chief and president.

He is expected to formally assume the presidency later this year or in 1998, completing the first dynastic transfer of power in communism's history.

In recent months, the North's media had begun referring to the younger Kim as "great leader," a reverential title once reserved for his father. The younger Kim had been known for years as "dear leader."

At Wednesday's news, "the whole country raised cheers," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said. "Squares and parks, streets and villages throughout the country were crowded with people singing and dancing to the tune of drums and gongs."

Chinese President Jiang Zemin sent Kim a telegram expressing "warm congratulations," China's state-run TV said. Beijing is North Korea's last remaining major ally.

South Koreans accepted the news of Kim's long-expected ascension to power calmly. President Kim Young-sam said he expected no immediate major changes in the North, and his government called on Pyongyang to "open up . . . and build peace with the South."

Kim Jong Il is widely expected to gradually open his famine-stricken, impoverished nation as he consolidates power.

"The economy is his primary concern," said Ryoo Kihl-jae, a political science professor at Kyung-nam University's Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

"North Korea will open more . . . roughly following the trail of China," Ryoo said. "But I doubt North Korea will go as far as China has.

Park June-young, a political scientist at Ewha Woman's University in Seoul, agreed.

"Kim will try more aggressively to establish diplomatic ties with the United States and persuade Washington to remove the economic embargo against his country," Park said.

"In short, North Korea under Kim Jong Il will be more confident in leading its society to openness in a tightly controlled manner," Park added.

North Korea already has taken a few, halting steps toward greater openness. It has created a free trade zone in its far northeastern corner and sought membership in the Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund, frozen its nuclear program under a 1994 accord with the United States and entered into talks with Washington on anti-ballistic missile proliferation.

It also has agreed, with reservations, to try to negotiate a permanent peace treaty with South Korea. Those talks would also involve China and the United States as mediators.