SEOUL (AFP) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has expressed deep sorrow over the death of a top aide, displaying unusual intimacy towards his "close comrade-in-arms whom nobody can replace".
Mr Kim Yang Gon, a top party official and key confidante to Mr Kim Jong Un, who oversaw relations with the South, died in a traffic accident on Tuesday, official media said. A state funeral was held early on Thursday (Dec 31).
Leader Kim has earned a reputation for ruthlessness after having his uncle executed and sacking other high-ranking officials in a purge to consolidate his reign which began in 2011 when he replaced his father Kim Jong Il.
Analysts have said that more foul play in the death of Mr Kim Yang Gon could not be ruled out, citing possible jealousy among political rivals.
But the tone used in official news reports on Thursday was in stark contrast to those announcing past political purges, with Mr Kim Yang Gon described in glowing terms.
North Korea's state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun carried a front-page picture showing a grieving Mr Kim touching the face of his aide, whose remains were laid on a bier decorated with flowers.
"He could hardly repress his bitter grief for a long while, his hands put on the cold body of the revolutionary comrade," the official news agency KCNA said.
"Kim Yang Gon was his faithful helper and close comrade-in-arms whom nobody can replace, he said," it added.
Other photos showed Mr Kim, accompanied by party and military officials, bowing deeply in front of the bier during their visit on Wednesday.
KCNA's 2013 announcement of the death of Jang Song Thaek, meanwhile condemned him as a "traitor" to the nation and derided him as "despicable human scum... worse than a dog".
The North did not reveal details about the accident said to have killed Mr Kim Yang Gon, but a disproportionately high rate of fatal crashes among the North's powerful elites has been attributed to reckless driving, often under the influence of alcohol.
Their vehicles sport distinctive plate numbers allowing them to flout traffic laws, while they often attend inner-circle feasts or parties without chauffeurs, according to defectors.
Meagre infrastructure including dark, potholed streets in the suburbs where such exclusive parties take place are also to blame, the South Korean daily Joongang Ilbo said.
Mr Kim Yang Gon's predecessor Kim Yong Sun, who helped arrange the first North-South summit in 2000, also perished in what was described as a traffic accident in 2003.
Mr Ri Je Gang, another top party official, also reportedly died in a car crash in 2010 at a time when he was rumoured to be involved in a power struggle with Jang.
Jang himself survived a car accident in 2006 before being executed.