Fears of Instability After N. Korean Leader's Death

Fears of Instability After N. Korean Leader's Death

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SAN FRANCISCO -- North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-il has died, according to media reports from the isolated communist nation, leaving the peninsula and the East Asia region on bated breath as regional powers digest the news.

The North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced Monday morning (Korea time) that Kim had died of an “acute myocardial infarction, which triggered a heart attack” while on a train carrying him on one of his frequent field tours. He was 69.

South Korea quickly put its military on high alert following the announcement, though Seoul’s Joint Chiefs announced they have not detected any unusual activity in the North.

Clad in black, a teary-eyed elderly female news anchor delivered the news via the KCNA, noting that an autopsy was performed Sunday to confirm the cause of death.

Kim reportedly suffered from a heart attack in 2008 and is known to have struggled with diabetes. He took power following the death of his father and state founder Kim Il-sung in 1994.

The North’s report noted that Kim died on December 17, at roughly 8:30 am.

South Korean broadcaster KBS is reporting that a 232-member funeral committee has been formed for Kim which includes his sister and brother-in-law Jang Song-taek. The committee has issued a statement saying a service will be held for the North Korean leader on December 28 and that his body is currently lying in state at the Gumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, where his father’s body also lies.

Analysts say those chosen to attend the funeral could reflect the core of the country’s next leadership circle, adding there are regional fears of instability as internal factional strife long kept at bay by Kim could erupt with his passing.

Kim named his third and youngest son Jong-un as his successor in 2010. North Korean observers were quick to point out that the young heir had no military experience and therefore could struggle to gain the loyalty of the nation’s military elite.

The late leader had groomed his youngest son as his successor, promoting him to the rank of four-star general and placing him in key posts at the ruling Workers Party.

South Korean analysts say the next six months will be critical from the young Kim in terms of rallying the support of key figures in the North’s ruling apparatus.

Stocks on South Korea’s KOSPI, meanwhile, took a steep dive following the news, dropping 72 points in trading as of Monday morning. The local currency also shed nearly 20 Won against the dollar.

Known by North Koreans as the “Dear Leader,” Kim maintained an iron-fisted rule over the country, surrounding himself in a cult of personality that penetrated all levels of North Korean society. Gulags and chronic food shortages were also hallmarks of his rule, alongside a massive military force and on-again off-again nuclear program.

Critics in South Korea are attacking President Lee Myung-bak for what they say is a “massive failure of intelligence.” Lee is currently on a visit to Japan, a fact that some say suggests he was unaware of Kim’s passing.

Lee’s presidency, beginning in 2008, witnessed a drastic souring of inter-Korean relations as the conservative South Korean leader quickly sought to tie aid to the impoverished North to progress on nuclear talks and its human rights record.

In 2010, tensions reached a near boiling point following the bombing of a South Korean naval vessel in disputed waters separating the two Koreas. North Korea was blamed in the incident, though it has consistently denied responsibility. In November of that year it shelled an island near the Demilitarized Zone, killing four and injuring 19.

There are about 900 South Koreans currently working in the North, including the industrial complex at Kaesong near the border with the South. Reports note fears among some in the South about their safety.

A separate KBS report questioned whether China received news of Kim’s passing prior to South Korea. China has been the North’s closest ally since the two fought on the same side in the 1950-53 Korean War against allied U.S. and South Korean forces, which fought under the banner of the United Nations.

There have long been concerns in South Korea about China’s growing influence in the North, where Chinese investments and aid have offered a key lifeline to the continued survival of the regime.

China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency is reporting Kim’s death, quoting from the KCNA announcement that the “"Korean revolution” will now be led by Kim’s son. It also noted that Washington is in close contact with both Seoul and Tokyo.

There are also fears of refugees fleeing the country. A report in the Korea Daily from Dec. 14 noted that 8 soldiers from North Korea fled across the border into China. Border guards reportedly killed two, while another six disappeared.

The article described the incident as “unusual” in that it involved a fairly large group of soldiers, and noted it is a sign of worsening conditions inside the country. The World Food Program this year announced that the North will need upwards of 414,000 tons of grain to feed its population.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, meanwhile, reports that scheduled talks between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear program will likely be delayed. The talks were set to be held in Beijing on Thursday and were to focus on restarting long-stalled six-way talks also involving China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

"In the wake of the North Korean leader Kim's death, it would be difficult for the two sides to hold the talks in Beijing this week," an official at Seoul's foreign ministry said on condition of anonymity.

Kim’s official birthplace is listed as being on the slopes of Mt. Baekdu on the China-North Korea border, though experts say he was more likely born in Russia, where his father served with anti-Japanese forces during WWII.