North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, known in his country as the “Dear Leader”, has died of a heart attack on Saturday aboard a train during a trip out of Pyongyang, state media has announced on Monday.
The announcer read the statement on national television wearing black and struggling to keep back the tears as she said the 69-year-old leader had died of physical and mental over-work.
“It is the biggest loss for the party … and it is our people and nation’s biggest sadness,” she said.
She also urged the country, people and military to “faithfully revere respectable comrade Kim Jong-un”.
“At the leadership of comrade Kim Jong-un, we have to change sadness to strength and courage and overcome today’s difficulties,” she said.
Later the KCNA news agency reported that Kim Jong-il had died of a “severe myocardial infarction along with a heart attack” at 08:30 local time on Saturday (23:30 GMT Friday). KCNA added that he died while on a train for one of his “field guidance” tours.
Images showed people weeping at the news in the streets of Pyongyang (photo, from nytimes.com).
State TV also showed ruling party members in one North Korean county banging tables and crying out loud, the AFP news agency reported.
“I can’t believe it. How can he go like this? What are we supposed to do?” a party member named as Kang Tae-Ho was quoted as saying, while another, Hong Sun-Ok, said: “He tried so hard to make our lives much better and he just left like this.”
Millions of North Koreans had been “engulfed in indescribable sadness”, said KCNA, describing Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un, as the “great successor” who North Koreans should unite behind.
“All party members, military men and the public should faithfully follow the leadership of comrade Kim Jong-un and protect and further strengthen the unified front of the party, military and the public,” the news agency said.
We know little about Kim Jong-un, who is believed to be in his late 20s and was educated in Switzerland. He is believed to be Kim Jong-il’s third son, born to Mr Kim’s reportedly favourite wife, the late Ko Yong-hui.
In October 2010 Kim Jong-un was unveiled as his father’s likely successor (photo, from lexpress.fr), and many expected to see this process further consolidated in the coming year.
On high alert
At the news of Kim Jong-il’s death China, which is considered North Korea’s closest ally and biggest trading partner, said it was “distressed”.
“We express our grief about this and extend our condolences to the people of North Korea,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying.
Other neighbours reacted differently to the news of Kim Jong-il’s death.
According to unconfirmed South Korean reports the North has testfired a missile on Monday. Yonhap news agency said a short-range missile was fired off North Korea’s eastern coast of the poor and isolated nuclear-armed nation, although it remains unclear whether the test was connected to the announcement of the leader’s death.
The news agency also reported that after Kim Jong-il’s death South Korea’s military was placed on high alert.
Earlier on Monday South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak called for calm as the government was placed in “emergency mode”.
The Korean peninsula was split in half by the Korean War. And although both sides signed a ceasefire in 1953, technically South Korea is still at war with the north.
While putting the military on alert and saying the country was on a crisis footing, South Korea urged people on Monday to “go about their usual economic activities”.
Japan’s government has convened a special security meeting.
After the news Asian stock markets fell amid uncertainty over the stability of the region.
‘Keep cool heads’
South Korean and American presidents talked on the phone and they “agreed to closely co-operate and monitor the situation together,” a South Korean presidential spokesman said.
In a statement the US said it remained “committed to stability on the Korean peninsula, and to the freedom and security of our allies”.
According to analysts Mr Kim’s death could augur “very unstable times” because the process of transition from father to son is incomplete.
“We have to be very worried because whenever there is domestic instability North Korea likes to find an external situation to divert the attention away from that – including indulging in provocation,” Professor Lee Jung-hoon, specialising in international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul, told the BBC.
All parties need to “keep cool heads”, said Christopher Hill, former US representative to the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme.
But Kim Jong-il’s death could also be a “turning point” for the country to engage more closely with the international community, said Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague.
In 1994 Kim Jong-il became North Korea’s leader after his father Kim Il-sung died.
While the title of ‘Eternal President’ remains Kim Il-sung’s, his son took the posts of chairman of the national defence commission, commander of the Korean People’s Army and head of the ruling Worker’s Party.
Ill-judged economic reforms and poor harvests caused a severe famine shortly after Kim Jong-il came to power, leaving an estimated two million people dead.
Harshly criticised for human rights abuses, North Korea is internationally isolated because of its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The country conducted ifs first nuclear test in 2006, and a second one three years later. Multinational talks aimed at disarming North Korea have been deadlocked for months.
Kim Jong-il had reportedly been in poor health and is widely believed to have suffered a stroke in August 2008.
A period a national mourning has been declared from 17 to 29 December, and a funeral will be held in Pyongyang on 28 December, said the state news agency. Kim Jong-un will head the funeral committee.