SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader who realized his family’s dream of turning his starving country into a minor nuclear-weapons power even as the isolated nation sank further into despotism, died on Saturday of a heart attack, according to the country’s state-run media.
The North had kept news of the death of its leader secret for roughly two days, perhaps a sign that the leadership was struggling to position itself for what many believe could be a particularly perilous transition. A few hours after the announcement, the powerful Workers’ Party and government officials released a joint statement suggesting Mr. Kim’s chosen successor, his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, was in charge.
The Workers’ Party announcement said that “Under the leadership of our comrade Kim Jong-un, we have to turn sadness into strength and courage, and overcome today’s difficulties.”
K.C.N.A., the official news agency, said North Korean soldiers and citizens were swearing allegiance to Kim Jong-un. People on the streets of Pyongyang broke into tears as they learned of Mr. Kim's death, The Associated Press reported from Pyongyang.
Kim Jong-un is believed to be in his late 20s and his youth and relative inexperience could make him vulnerable to power struggles; some analysts have questioned the depth of the military’s support for him.
Kim Jong-il’s death came after a long illness, dating to 2008, that American intelligence agencies believed involved some form of a stroke. The North has indicated he was 69 years old, but scholars have said he could have been a year older.
“We took every emergency measure we could, but the great leader passed away,” the North Korean statement said.
His death ended 17 years of rule over the isolated, paranoid country that his father, Kim Il-sung, founded.
American and Asian officials were on alert for any signs that the country, which has almost inexplicably avoided collapse in recent decades, could begin to fracture.
South Korea put its military on alert, boosting surveillance along the 155-mile border, one of the world’s most heavily armed frontiers, to detect any unusual signs from the North Korean military. American and South Korean officials have expressed concern that any power struggle could lead some factions in the North to lash out — as they did in 2010, attacking a South Korean island and, according to South Korean intelligence, sinking a warship. Fifty South Koreans died in the two separate episodes.
Under Kim Jong-il’s rule, the North accomplished the single milestone that his father had dreamed about, exploding two crude nuclear devices, one in 2006 and another in 2009, just months after President Obama took office. But while the tests — the first was a fizzle — may have given the country a measure of protection against an American invasion, which Mr. Kim and his military leaders long feared, they also deepened his isolation.
The 2009 test killed any discussion inside the Obama White House of reaching out to the North Korean leadership, especially after Mr. Kim largely abandoned agreements he reached with the George W. Bush administration to denuclearize. Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates seemed to summarize the Obama administration’s attitude toward the North when he declared that the United States would not provide aid to the country in return for its making new commitments to give up nuclear weapons.
“I don’t want to buy the same horse twice,” he said on repeated occasions. Only in recent months have the two sides had any significant contact, mostly over food aid.
North Korea is estimated to have enough fuel to make at least eight nuclear weapons.
Mr. Kim’s death poses a moment of peril for both Washington, the North’s nemesis, and Beijing, its last protector. “We’re entering a period that is especially dangerous,” said Jim Walsh, a professor at M.I.T.’s security studies programs who has met in recent months with several North Korean delegations as part of the behind-the-scenes, unofficial contacts from which the United States has gleaned some understanding of the power plays in Pyongyang. “Here is a young leader who may be distrusted by the military, and he has to prove himself,” he said of Kim Jong-un. “And that can lead to miscalculation and inadvertent war.”
The White House, in a terse statement, said it was “closely monitoring reports that Kim Jong Il is dead. The President has been notified, and we are in close touch with our allies in South Korea and Japan.”
In a brief additional line, Mr. Obama’s spokesman added: “We remain committed to stability on the Korean peninsula, and to the freedom and security of our allies.” That seemed to be a soft warning to the North Koreans not to engage in any violence.
“There are a whole range of scenarios for when Kim dies,” one former American military commander in South Korea said recently, insisting on anonymity because he was discussing classified American response plans. “Anyone who tells you they understand what is going to happen is either lying or deceiving himself.”
Culled from : New York Times