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North Korea's new leader makes diplomatic debut

SEOUL, South Korea – Kim Jong Un the marshal became Kim Jong Un the statesman as he talked with Chinese political dignitaries in meetings state media reported Friday that were his first official foray into foreign affairs since becoming North Korea's leader.

Kim told Wang Jiarui, head of the Communist Party's international affairs office, that his government is focused on building the economy, then invited the Chinese delegation to a banquet Thursday, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported. The Korean Central News Agency reported the meeting without details on their discussions.

The occasion was Kim's diplomatic debut as leader of North Korea, seven months after he took power following the December death of his father, longtime leader Kim Jong Il.

Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be 29, has been swift in moving to build loyalty among North Korea's 24 million people and to establish control over key institutions such as the military and ruling Workers' Party.

He also has been quick to show his rule will differ in style from that of his father, who kept his personal life out of the state media, rarely traveled abroad and met only selectively with foreign dignitaries.

After gaining the new title of marshal and shuffling the military leadership last month, Kim Jong Un made the surprise introduction of his wife, Ri Sol Ju. Kim also has emphasized raising the standard of living as a main goal of his leadership, an objective laid out for him by his father.

"Developing the economy and improving livelihoods so that the (North) Korean people lead happy and civilized lives is the goal the Workers' Party is struggling towards," Xinhua reported Kim as telling Wang.

The talks took place as swaths of North Korean farms remained submerged after heavy rains. More than 120 people were killed and tens of thousands lost their homes in fierce storms last month, state media said.

The United Nations called Friday for immediate food assistance for North Koreans living in three flooded counties. Earlier this year, the U.N. said two-thirds of North Korea's 24 million are coping with chronic food shortages.

Kim's choice to host the Chinese comes as no surprise. China poured troops into North Korea to help fight the U.S.-led United Nations forces during the 1950-53 Korean War and remains Pyongyang's main ally and biggest benefactor.

Though the relationship has been cool at times, with Pyongyang periodically snubbing the nation that considers itself a big brother to tiny North Korea, ties have deepened in recent years as North Korea has become increasingly reliant on China for much-needed food, oil and trade.

North Korea has looked to China for pointers on how to develop the economy within its socialist system. During his 17-year rule, Kim Jong Il rarely traveled abroad. But he made an exception for China, traveling there by train four times in the last two years of his life.

Wang, a regular visitor to Pyongyang, met with Kim Jong Il during his visit to China last August. Also at the table Thursday was Kang Sok Ju, the seasoned North Korean diplomat who accompanied Kim on the China trip.

Kim Jong Un has yet to make his first trip abroad as leader but appears to be molding himself on his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, who traveled regularly overseas and mingled comfortably with foreign diplomats and journalists.

North Korea's new leader already has demonstrated a willingness to rub shoulders with foreigners, including Westerners.

Foreign diplomats and officials were invited to the opening ceremony late last month of the new Rungna Island fairgrounds. One KCNA photo showed a British diplomat, Barnaby Jones, seated on a roller coaster one row from Kim — an image that sparked speculation in foreign media about Kim's mysterious foreign friend.

Footage aired on state TV on Friday also showed ambassadors and other foreign officials seated just a few rows behind Kim at a dolphin show.

A foreign reporter from The Associated Press allowed to attend a closed event also was seated just a few feet away from Kim earlier this year.

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Follow AP's Korea bureau chief at www.twitter.com/newsjean.

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