JEFFREY BROWN: North Korea marked the passing of power today to a scion of the same family that’s ruled unchallenged since World War II. Official media reported Kim Jong-il had died after 17 years in power, bequeathing the communist country to his youngest son.
As state television reported it, word of Kim’s death affected everyone, from the news reader, to officials depicted as sobbing at the moment they heard the news, to ordinary people shown grieving on the streets of Pyongyang for the Dear Leader.
WOMAN (through translator): He loved us so much that, once, he came here in the freezing weather and walked all the way up to the third floor. He asked us to work hard to feed the nation.
JEFFREY BROWN: The regime reported the 69-year-old Kim Jong-il died early Saturday after suffering a heart attack as he toured the country by train. He had suffered a stroke in 2008.
Kim took over the leadership in 1994 on the death of his father, Kim Il-Sung, the founder of modern-day North Korea known as the Great Leader. Both men ruled an isolated, hard-line communist state with few allies.
China, though, has long been among them. And, in Beijing today, a Foreign Ministry spokesman praised Kim’s memory.
LIU WEIMIN, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (through translator): He made important contributions to developing North Korea’s socialist cause and promoting good neighborly and cooperative relations between China and North Korea.
We believe the North Korean people will definitely be able to turn sorrow into strength and remain united as one to continuously push forward their socialist cause.
JEFFREY BROWN: Kim had ruled for 17 years, appearing in public with — and sometimes satirized outside the country for — his bouffant hairdo, platform shoes and jumpsuits. He was said to have a taste for Western films and cognac.
But there was a very dark side, repression of all dissent, and, like his father, Kim continued a military-first policy, with 1.2 million troops under arms. North Korea periodically showed off missile launches, including one even today. And Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons kept the world on edge, especially after 2006, when the North conducted the first of two underground test explosions.
Last year, a conventional weapons clash drove the two Koreas to the brink, after the North sank the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors, and then fired on a South Korean island.
Today, on word of Kim’s death, South Korea’s military went on high alert, and the Seoul government called emergency Cabinet meetings.
PARK JEONG-HA, South Korean Presidential Office (through translator): Peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula is the first priority for the future of South Korea. This situation shouldn’t be a threat to peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula. In order to maintain stability, we must be thoroughly prepared.
JEFFREY BROWN: American troops in South Korea didn’t go on higher alert, but Kim’s death could delay U.S. decisions to re-engage the North on ending its nuclear program and on providing new food aid.
Under Kim, North Korea has been chronically unable to feed its population of 23 million. A famine in the late 1990s reportedly killed more than 200,000. And, afterward, more North Koreans began trying to escape the repressive regime. The problem has only marginally improved. The country still relies heavily on food aid, and many children are malnourished.
In Washington today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced hope for improved relations after meeting with the Japanese foreign minister.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea, as well as in ensuring regional peace and stability. We reiterate our hope for improved relations with the people of North Korea and remain deeply concerned about their well-being.
JEFFREY BROWN: Part of any such hope will depend on Kim’s chosen successor, his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, who was proclaimed as a — quote — “great successor to his father.”
The younger Kim is believed to be in his late 20s. Last year, he was made a four-star general and vice chairman of a key commission in the ruling Workers party — Kim Jong-un’s first major task: overseeing the state funeral for his father scheduled for Dec. 28.