North Korea announced the death of leader Kim Jong-il and urged its people to rally behind his son and heir-apparent yesterday, while the world watched warily for signs of instability in the nuclear-armed nation.
In a “special broadcast” from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, state media said Kim Jong-il died on a train on Saturday due to “great mental and physical strain” during a “high intensity field inspection.” It said an autopsy was done on Sunday and “fully confirmed” the diagnosis.
South Korea, anxious about the untested, 20-something Kim Jong-un after his father’s 17-year rule, put its military on high alert against the North’s 1.2 million-strong armed forces. US President Barack Obama agreed by telephone with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to closely monitor developments.
People on the streets of Pyongyang wailed in grief, some kneeling on the ground or bowing repeatedly as they learned the news that their “dear general” had died of heart failure at age 69, while carrying out official duties.
“How could the heavens be so cruel? Please come back, general. We cannot believe you’re gone,” Hong Son-ok shouted in an interview with North Korea’s official television, her body shaking wildly.
“It is the biggest loss for the party ... and it is our people and nation’s biggest sadness,” an anchorwoman clad in black Korean traditional dress said in a voice choked with tears.
“He passed away too suddenly to our profound regret,” a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said. “The heart of Kim Jong-il stopped beating, but his noble and august name and benevolent image will always be remembered by our army and people.”
While there was no immediate statement on the official succession, indications were clear that Kim Jong-un, the third son of Kim Jong-il, would be in charge.
The North said in a dispatch that the people and the military “have pledged to uphold the leadership of comrade Kim Jong-un” and called him a “great successor” of the country’s revolutionary philosophy of juche, or self reliance.
The death comes at a sensitive time for North Korea as it prepares for next year’s 100th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il-sung — Kim Jong-il’s father. The preparations include massive construction projects throughout the city as part of Kim Jong-il’s unfulfilled promise to bring prosperity to his people.
Seoul and Washington will worry that Kim Jong-un “may feel it necessary in the future to precipitate a crisis to prove his mettle to other senior leaders,” according to Bruce Klingner, an Asia analyst at The Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
Another analyst said an internal power struggle could break out between Kim Jong-un and his aunt’s husband, Jang Song-thaek, who was elevated in the government last year and will likely be given a caretaker role in the new administration.
“Tension will arise between Jang and Kim Jong-un, because Kim [Jong-un] will have no choice but to share some power with Jang,” said Ryoo Kihl-jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, which is in South Korea.
The North said it would place Kim’s body in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang and that his funeral would be on Wednesday next week. No entertainment will be allowed during a 10-day mourning period and the country will accept no “foreign delegations hoping to express condolences,” it said.