Kim Jong-il, North Korea's long-time leader, dies at 69


KIM JONG-IL, the volatile long-time leader of the secretive communist state of North Korea, has died of heart failure, it was announced yesterday, prompting anxiety in Asia about the transition to his heir apparent, the inexperienced Kim Jong-un.

As North Korea is an atomic power that has carried out a number of aggressive actions against its neighbours in recent years, the international community is keen for a sign that the succession will be handled without ratcheting up tensions on the Korean peninsula, one of the world’s great nuclear flashpoints.

A special broadcast from the North Korean capital Pyongyang said Kim Jong-il died on a train “during a high-intensity field inspection”.

An announcer on state TV, wearing black traditional costume and pictured against a landscape backdrop, choked back tears as she announced Kim Jong-il’s death. “It is the biggest loss for the party . . . and it is our people and nation’s biggest sadness,” she said. “We must change our sadness to strength and overcome our difficulties,” she said.

Famous for his love of fine wine, cigars and gourmet food, the “Dear Leader” reportedly had a stroke three years ago and had suffered from diabetes and heart disease. However, he has appeared in good health on recent visits to China and Russia.

North Korea is a desperately poor country that has keenly felt the brunt of economic sanctions for several years after it tested nuclear weapons. Its 24 million people have suffered terribly from food shortages and intermittent famines over the years. Neighbour and close ally China has effectively propped up the regime since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Kim Jong-il inherited power after his father, the revered North Korean founder and “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, died in 1994. In recent months Kim Jong-il has been grooming his third son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him as leader of North Korea by appointing him to senior positions.

Analysts believe that Kim Jong-un will continue to carry out his father’s policies, and because Kim Jong-il had worked on winning crucial support for the succession from the powerful military, a power struggle was unlikely, unless the junior Kim fails to deliver on pledges to boost the country’s economy.

However, the fact that Kim Jong-un is only in his 20s could work against him, especially in a society that values experience so highly.

At the same time, the fact that the news was announced calmly on TV was interpreted as a positive sign, as it shows a certain confidence that the succession of Kim Jong-un is in place.

“All party members, military men and the public should faithfully follow the leadership of comrade Kim Jong-un and protect and further strengthen the unified front of the party, military and the public,” the KCNA news agency said.

In South Korea, bitter enemy of the north since the 1950-53 Korean War divided the Korean peninsula, the military went on high alert and president Lee Myung-bak called a national security council meeting.

Tensions between the two Koreas have been running high since October 2006, when North Korea held its first nuclear test explosion despite pleas from China not to do so. It repeated the test in May 2009. In March last year, Seoul blamed Pyongyang for sinking a South Korean navy ship, killing 46 sailors. Then in November 2010, North Korea shelled a South Korean island near disputed waters on the west coast of the Korean peninsula, killing four people.

China has tried to play honest broker in the region and has sought, unsuccessfully, to resume stalled six-party nuclear disarmament talks since August 2003, which include North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.

China is the regional powerhouse and “as close as lips and teeth” to North Korea. It definitely does not want the Kim regime in North Korea to collapse, which could cause a stream of refugees into its territory and possibly see US troops at China’s border. North Korea’s importance as a buffer state means China has put up with various indiscretions by the state it sees as its ideological “little brother”.

Cai Jian, deputy head of the North Korea section of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said Kim Jong-il’s sudden death had raised tensions in Asia.

“It seems that over the last year the succession plan in North Korea has been proceeding on track for Kim’s son, and in raising his profile in the party, but we will need at least another year to know whether this will be able to happen smoothly. The people seem loyal, but we need to wait and see what those in power think,” said Mr Cai.

Sarah McDowall, senior analyst, Asia Pacific, at IHS, said the sudden death of Kim Jong-il had plunged the country into a period of uncertainty.

“There are real concerns that heir-apparent Kim Jong-un has not had sufficient time to form the necessary alliances in the country to consolidate his future as leader of the country,” she said.

“Although little is known about Jong-un, it appears unlikely that he will be a transformative figure for the country. Conversely, he is likely to be predisposed to adhere to concepts of Juche – or self-reliance – and dynastic centralisation,” she said.

In the short term there could be more tension between the two Koreas, and it remains to be seen what happens in the region if the transfer of power is not peaceful.

Kim Jong-il’s death has caused jitters in the stock markets in the region.

His funeral will be held in Pyongyang on December 28th, and Kim Jong-un will head the funeral committee, KCNA said. National mourning will continue until December 29th.