Kim Jong Il's death befogs North Korea, gives region jitters

By Charles Hutzler

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 19 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Hundreds of North Koreans gather to mourn the death of their leader Kim Jong Il in front of a giant statue of his father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. North Korea's news agency reported Monday that he had died at 8:30 a.m. Saturday after having a heart attack on a train, adding that he had been treated for cardiac and cerebrovascular diseases for a long time. He was 69.

APTN, Associated Press

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BEIJING — It was the scenario strategists from Beijing to Washington fretted over: Kim Jong Il's sudden death befalls North Korea, before the isolated regime completed a power transfer to his young son and rejoined disarmament talks with the U.S.

With news of Kim's death Monday, the impoverished country with a nuclear program plunged further into uncertainty, raising risks for the region.

Neighbors worry that political maneuvering in Pyongyang could spill over into missile launches or other aggression, though analysts give such acts a low probability. Tens of thousands of American troops are stationed in South Korea and Japan in this heavily armed, jittery corner of the world. China wants to keep its socialist neighbor stable — and avoid a flood of refugees — but also free from American and South Korean influence.

"If you asked experts what could happen to bring the regime down, it would be the sudden death of Kim Jong Il. That has happened now," said Victor Cha, a former U.S. National Security Council director for Asian affairs under President George Bush and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an American think tank. "We're potentially at a watershed moment for the region."

Its politics opaque in normal times, Pyongyang is likely to slow decision-making, upending efforts to restart nuclear disarmament talks just as the U.S. and North Korea seemed on the verge of resuming them. After months of delicate discussions, Washington was poised to announce a donation of food aid this week followed by an agreement with Pyongyang to suspend a uranium enrichment program, people close to the negotiations had told The Associated Press.

Tentative reforms to its listless economy and better the lives of North Koreans — 3 million of whom or more than 10 percent of the population are underfed, the U.N. says — may also be put on hold.

Kim's death caught North Korea's power brokers at a fragile time, in the midst of grooming his youngest son, 30-ish Kim Jong Un, to succeed him. Though the elder Kim reportedly had a stroke in 2008, hastening plans to find a successor, his health had seemingly improved, allowing him to travel more frequently, resume a more public role and prepare for a longer power transition like the two-decade-long one he enjoyed under his father.

One test will be a long-planned celebration in April for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim's father and revolutionary North Korean founder Kim Il Sung — an event meant to lend credibility to the bloodline succession. Feverish construction has been under way in Pyongyang while overseas critics of the regime have accused it of holding back food so that it can lavish its people with heftier supplies for the anniversary.

For now, North Korea watchers are focused on the-now abbreviated succession, looking for signs of whether the Workers Party and military will rally around Kim Jong Un or whether challenges will arise.

Domestic unrest may percolate, analysts said, as North Koreans tire of poverty and the mobile phones and Internet connections that are a product of recent reforms leave them better informed about the outside world.

The two-day gap between Kim's death Saturday on a train and its public announcement Monday underscored the government's nervousness, analysts said.

"The fact that they delayed for two days goes to show that the North Koreans are worried about instability," said Gong Keyu of Shanghai's Institute for International Studies.

Also possible are armed incursions against South Korea or Japan in a bid to rally North Koreans around the leadership. North Korea's shelling of a South Korean island last year was credited inside the North to Kim Jong Un, part of efforts to burnish his credentials as a fierce defender of the nation.

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