Kim Jong Il ruled the flow of information in North Korea so tightly that even news of his death did not emerge until two days after it occurred.
North Korean factory workers, military cadets, school children, and news anchors erupted in a mass outpouring of grief and wailing to official news Monday of the death of Dear Leader--as the man who has ruled the isolated Stalinist dictatorship since 1994 preferred to be known among his countrymen.
Kim, who was 69, died on a train on Saturday, apparently of a heart attack. But no hint of the Dear Leader's demise leaked in the country until North Korean state television reported it some 50 hours later--Monday morning in Asia, and Sunday night in U.S. time.
"North Korea's state media announced that the 69-year-old leader died of a heart attack during a train trip on Saturday, the same illness that killed his father and national founder, Kim Il-sung, in 1994," Yonhap News Agency, based in South Korea, wrote Monday. "The country's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said an autopsy confirmed 'an advanced acute myocardial infarction complicated with a serious heart shock' as the major cause of death."
The two-day delay in announcing Kim's death is "probably a sign of senior government, military and party officials making sure they reach consensus on what to say on succession," Tim Shorrock, a journalist who has covered Asia, told Yahoo News Monday. "It took several years for [the Communist] party to fully accept Kim Jr.'s succession in the 1990s."
Shorrock noted that the official North Korean Kim death announcement mentioned a 232-member funeral commission chaired by his son and designated heir-apparent. Such elaborately-organized and publicized funeral preparations would seem to signal, he said, that the Pyongyang regime has been "planning a response to show China, the United States, etc. 'continuity.'"
And mindful of the selective basis on which North Korea releases information into the world, the White House greeted the reports of Kim's death Sunday night with some caution, saying it was closely monitoring "reports" of Kim Jong Il's passing, and consulting with Asian allies.
By midnight, however, the White House had apparently confirmed news of Kim's death to its satisfaction; when Obama spoke with South Korean president Lee Myung-bak at that time, they discussed "the situation on the Korean peninsula following the death of Kim Jong Il," a White House readout of the call provided to journalists Monday said.
Perhaps the most isolated country on earth, North Korea remains an anomaly--a nuclear-armed Stalinist dictatorship that has, since its Cold War-ear founding, has always chosen its rulers on the basis of heredity.
Kim Jong Il inherited his post in 1994 upon the death of his father and the country's founder, King Il Sung, after a 20-year-long, highly involved succession process. By contrast, Kim Jong Il only in 2009 formally designated his third son, Kim Jong-un, to be his successor and heir-apparent.
Kim Jong-un attended an international school in Switzerland in the 1990s, but didn't exactly mingle on the international diplomatic cocktail circuit. Yonhap news agency said even his exact age wasn't certain. However, a U.S. official said that he is 27 years old and turns 28 in January.
"He is generally considered [to] act in a very similar manner to his father, in mannerisms, personality, etc.," the U.S. official told Yahoo News Monday by email on condition of anonymity. "Kim Jong Il picked the apple that didn't fall far from the tree. He didn't select a successor who he believed would radically depart from his vision for North Korea."
While under Kim Jong Il's 17 year reign his country tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, and promoted an elaborate Pyongyang subway system, many of its 24 million people suffered extreme hunger.
U.S. envoys have recently been negotiating a possible agreement to resume American food aid to the country in exchange for North Korea readmitting nuclear inspectors and resuming dialogue with South Korea. Recent discussions "already have yielded agreements by North Korea to suspend nuclear and ballistic missile testing, readmit international nuclear inspectors expelled in 2009, and resume a dialogue between North Korea and South Korea," the Associated Press reported Monday. Now, however, in the wake of Kim's death, those negotiations are likely to be put on hold, analysts said.
"Kim Jong Il's death marks the end of a deeply troubled period for North Korea and it likely will usher in a period of acute uncertainty for that country," Jonathan Pollack, Asia analyst at the Brookings Institution, wrote in an analysis provided to journalists Monday. "With this transition of power, North Korea remains a broken society, with its citizens largely reduced to subsistence living and its government maintaining tenuous links to its powerful neighbors and the international community."
However, resuming American food assistance to North Korea "would send a positive signal of engagement" to Pyongyang's new leaders, Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Monday.
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