PYONGYANG, North Korea, December 19 (agencies): North Korea announced the death of supreme leader Kim Jong Il and urged its people to rally behind his young son and heir-apparent Monday, while the world watched warily for signs of instability in a nation pursuing nuclear weapons.
South Korea, anxious about the untested, 20-something Kim Jong Un after his father`s 17-year rule, put its military on high alert against the North`s 1.2 million-strong armed forces. President Barack Obama agreed by phone with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to closely monitor developments.
People on the streets of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, wailed in grief, some kneeling on the ground or bowing repeatedly as they learned the news that their “dear general” had died of heart failure Saturday at age 69 while carrying out official duties on a train trip.
“How could the heavens be so cruel? Please come back, general. We cannot believe you`re gone,” Hong Son Ok shouted in an interview with North Korea`s official television, her body shaking wildly.
“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, indications were clear that Kim Jong Un, the third son of Kim Jong Il, 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.
The death could set back efforts by the United States and others to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions, because the untested successor may seek to avoid any perceived weakness as he moves to consolidate control.
“The situation could become extremely volatile. What the North Korean military does in the next 24-48 hours will be decisive,” said Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has made several high-profile visits to North Korea.
The death comes at a sensitive time for North Korea as it prepares for next year`s 100th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il Sung — Kim Jong Il`s father. The preparations include massive construction projects throughout the city as part of Kim Jong Il`s unfulfilled promise to bring prosperity to his people.
Seoul and Washington will worry that Kim Jong Un “may feel it necessary in the future to precipitate a crisis to prove his mettle to other senior leaders,” according to Bruce Klingner, an Asia analyst at The Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
North Korea conducted two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and is thought to have enough plutonium for at least a half-dozen weapons. But experts doubt that the North has mastered the miniaturization technology to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile.
Also Monday, North Korea conducted at least one short-range missile test Monday, South Korea`s Yonhap news agency reported. Two South Korean military officials said they couldn`t immediately confirm the report, saying to do so would breach a policy of not commenting on intelligence matters. Both said any firing would be part of a routine drill and have little relation to Kim Jong Il`s death. They both spoke on condition of anonymity, citing policy.
Yonhap cited unidentified government and military officials as saying the firing occurred off the east coast.
In Seoul, parliamentary official Lee Kyu-yun said he was thinking of stocking up food in case of soaring military tensions.
Lee Byung-joon, 27, feared South Korea might have to fight a war against the North if high-ranking officials challenge the inexperienced Kim Jong Un and Pyongyang becomes unstable.
“I definitely think the chance of war breaking out between the South and the North is higher now than before,” Lee said.