North Koreans marched by their thousands to their capital’s landmarks to mourn the sudden death of Kim Jong-il yesterday, many crying uncontrollably and flailing their arms in grief over the death of their “Dear Leader.”
North Korean state media proclaimed his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, a “Great Successor,” while a vigilant world watched for any signs of a turbulent transition in an unpredictable nation known to be pursuing nuclear weapons.
South Korea’s military went on high alert in the face of the North’s 1.2 million-strong armed forces following news of Kim’s death after 17 years in power. North Korea said Kim died of a heart attack on Saturday while on a train trip.
On the streets of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, people wailed in grief, some kneeling or bowing repeatedly.
A tearful Kim Yong Ho said Kim Jong-il had made people’s lives happier. “That is what he was doing when he died: working, travelling on a train,” he said.
Other North Koreans walked past a giant painting of Kim Jong-il and his late father, national founder Kim-il Sung, standing together on Mount Paektu, Kim Jong-il’s official birthplace. Wreaths were neatly placed below the painting.
“How could the heavens be so cruel? Please come back, general. We cannot believe you’re gone,” Hong Son Ok shouted, her body shaking during an interview with North Korea’s official television.
“He passed away too suddenly to our profound regret,” said a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
He was 69, according to official records, though some reports indicate he was 70.
North Korean state media fell short of calling Kim Jong-un the country’s next leader, but gave clear indications that Kim Jong-il’s third son, who is believed to be in his late 20s, would succeed his father.
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.
“What the North Korean military does in the next 24-48 hours will be decisive,” said Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations who has made several 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 Kim-il Sung. The preparations include huge construction projects as part of Kim Jong-il’s unfulfilled promise to bring prosperity to his people.
Governments around the world were watching warily last night. Cautious optimism that the demise of the dictator could usher in a new era of change was tempered by uncertainty as to how the regime would react.
Foreign Secretary William Hague voiced the hope the end of Kim’s 17-year reign could mark a “turning point” in the history of the impoverished state.
Mr Hague said: “We hope that their new leadership will recognise that engagement with the international community offers the best prospect of improving the lives of ordinary North Korean people.”
He also called on Pyongyang to allow the resumption of the regional six party talks on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
The White House said President Barack Obama had spoken to South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak and voiced the United States’ “strong commitment” to the security of “our close ally”.
In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda summoned an emergency meeting of the national security council.
In China, North Korea’s most important ally, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu paid tribute to Kim as a “great leader”.
Beijing would, he added, continue to make “active contributions to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in this region”.Comment: Page 10.