N Koreans mourn Kim Jong-il


Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s mercurial and enigmatic leader, has died at the age of 69.

Kim’s death was announced by state television from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

He is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008 but appeared relatively vigorous in photos and video from recent trips to China and Russia and in numerous trips around the country carefully documented by state media.

The leader, reputed to have had a taste for cigars, cognac and gourmet cuisine, was believed to have had diabetes and heart disease.

The news came as the country prepared for a hereditary succession. Kim Jong Il inherited power after his father, revered North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, died in 1994.

In September 2010, Kim Jong Il unveiled his third son, the twenty-something Kim Jong Un, as his successor, putting him in high-ranking posts.

North Korea said Kim’s body will be placed in the Kumsusan memorial palace in Pyongyang and there will be a national mourning period until December 29th. Kim’s funeral will be held on December 28th.

South Korea launched a high alert for its military as it faces the North’s 1.2 million-strong armed forces, while US president Barack Obama and South Korean president Lee Myung-bak agreed by phone to monitor the events closely and co-operate.

“He passed away too suddenly to our profound regret,” said a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.

“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 official succession, there were clear indications that Kim Jong Un 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.

“At the leadership of comrade Kim Jong Un, we have to change sadness to strength and courage and overcome today’s difficulties,” North Korea said.

It was not immediately clear what effect Kim’s death would have on recent efforts to bring North Korea back into nuclear talks aimed at exchanging aid for commitments by the North to disarm.

North Korea test-fired a short-range missile on its eastern coast today South Korean media reported.

An unnamed South Korean official was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying he did not believe the launch was linked to the announcement of Kim's death.

South Korea's Defence Ministry and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declined to confirm the report.

The North periodically test-fires short-range missiles into the waters off its coasts as part of routine training or timed to sensitive political developments. Reports of the last such firing came in June.

Kim Jong Un regularly accompanied his father on trips around the country over the past year. Kim Jong Il inherited power after his father, revered North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, died in 1994.

The North said it would place Kim’s body in the Kumsusan memorial palace in Pyongyang and would hold a national mourning period until December 29th, when “all the people in the nation (will) spend three minutes in silent prayer.”

The South Korean and US militaries have bolstered reconnaissance and are sharing intelligence assets on North Korea, according to Seoul’s defence ministry. About 28,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea.

The Obama administration may postpone decisions on re-engaging the North in nuclear talks and providing it with food aid, US officials said.

The administration had been expected to decide on both issues this week, possibly as early as today, but the officials said Kim’s death would likely delay the process. They said the US was particularly concerned about any changes that Kim’s death might spark in the military postures of North and South Korea but were hopeful that calm would prevail.