The abrupt death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il threw the rest of Asia into deep anxiety on Monday and reverberated across the Pacific, as friends and enemies of the nuclear-armed country fretted over whether it was now facing an unpredictable power struggle — even as the official North Korean press proclaimed that Kim’s cherubic-faced youngest son was his successor.
The son, Kim Jong-un, is such an unknown that the world did not even know what he looked like until last year. Believed to be in his 20s, the son faces enormous uncertainty over his ability to retain power in one of the most opaque and repressive countries in the world — the last bastion of hard-line communism.
Even if he can, questions loom about his ability to manage North Korea’s ravaged economy, with its chronic shortages and deprivations, to avoid a complete collapse.
“Kim Jong-un’s first priority will be regime survival,” said Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.
The North Korean announcement that Kim Jong-il, 69, had died of a heart attack while on a train trip on Saturday — an unexplained 48-hour delay that only further unnerved North Korea’s neighbors — sent South Korea scrambling into a high state of military alert. South Korea’s stock market tumbled 3.4 percent.
The leaders of South Korea, Japan and the US all conferred urgently, reflecting both the surprise of Kim Jong-il’s death and the possibility of belligerent behavior from a paranoid Pyongyang government.
In Washington, the administration of US President Barack Obama, emphasizing the need for stability on the Korean Peninsula, delayed any decisions on the resumption of food aid or a new round of bilateral talks with the North Koreans.
Victoria Nuland, a US Department of State spokeswoman, told reporters: “We need to see where they are and where they go as they move through their transition period.”
Even China, North Korea’s most important ally and benefactor, appeared caught off guard by Kim Jong-il’s demise. Chinese leaders had been hoping that he would live at least a few more years to more solidly cement the succession of his son.
On Monday, China was moving quickly to deepen its influence over senior officials in North Korea and particularly with those in the military, according to Chinese and foreign former government officials and analysts.
For now, the reclusive leadership is acting true to form, offering few clues as to what, if any, changes the death of the dictator could bring. It does, however, appear to be offering the first glimmers of an answer to one question that has long dogged North Korea watchers — whether the powerful military and other parts of the nation’s small, privileged ruling elite would go along with the Kim family’s ambitions to extend its dynastic rule to a third generation.
Within hours of the announcement on Monday of his father’s death, North Korea’s ruling Workers Party released a statement calling on the nation to unite “under the leadership of our comrade Kim Jong-un.”
The younger Kim was also named head of the committee overseeing his father’s funeral, set for Wednesday next week — a move that some analysts interpreted as evidence that the transfer of power to the son was proceeding smoothly so far.
Analysts said they expected the funeral to be an elaborate public display, not only of reverence for the deceased leader, but also of national unity behind the new one.