TOKYO — Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader who threatened the world with his nuclear weapons ambitions and suppressed his own people with imprisonment and isolation, left in the wake of his death an antiquated country with a power vacuum.
Kim's death raises immediate questions about the future — and the stability — of perhaps the world's most isolated state, which for six decades has held its country together with the Kim family personality cult. Kim was deified by state media, described as the "Dear Leader." A weeping television anchor today told North Korea of Kim's death.
Security analysts and officials from Seoul to Washington have long believed that Kim's death would double as a pivot point on the Korean peninsula. But that poses a threat of its own as North Korea tries to pass power to Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong Un, who is in his 20s.
Kim Jong Un, until late last year, had lived his life almost entirely behind a wall of privacy. But as Kim Jong Il struggled with his own health, the father accelerated a controversial power transfer, and in late September 2010, named Kim Jong Un to several top military and political posts. This year, when Kim Jong Il made his customary visits to military camps and factories across the country, Kim Jong Un often accompanied him — not as an equal, but as a trainee.
One concern, described by numerous Korean security experts, is that the younger Kim could face opposition from more senior North Korean officials, including Jang Song Thaek, who had been acting as a caretaker for the transition. In recent years, Kim Jong Il tried to minimized the power of other older party members, often demoting them — sometimes even banishing them to the countryside — so they wouldn't form allies of their own.
Since taking over his own father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994, Kim kept a tight hold on North Korean society, using the so-called Juche ideology. That emphasized national self-reliance to rationalize strict crackdowns against opposition. Those who spoke out against the Kim family were sent to prison camps, defectors say, along with their parents and children.
The country's leadership maintained a ban on most communication: Most North Koreans, even now, have no access to the Internet. Several hundred thousand North Koreans now have cellphones, but they can make only domestic calls.
As a result, North Korea dealt with almost no dissent — a stark contrast to Arab countries that this year revolted against authoritarian rulers. For almost two decades now, North Korea has defied predictions of its demise. Kim's death sparked new concerns — reflected in dipping stock markets in Seoul; in emergency meetings in Seoul and Tokyo — that the country could become less stable.
In Tokyo, Japanese leaders held an emergency security meeting. South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff put its front-line military on emergency alert, with heightened concern about a provocation along the contested maritime border. Seoul's stock market dipped more than 4.5 percent, amid the news of Kim's death.
In recent years, particularly since his apparent August 2008 stroke, U.S. intelligence agencies had monitored Kim's health closely. But it was not clear whether they knew his death was imminent. Kim took several trips this year to China and Russia, traveling by heavily armored train.
The White House issued a statement late Sunday acknowledging Kim's death: "We are closely monitoring reports that Kim Jong Il is dead. The President has been notified, and we are in close touch with our allies in South Korea and Japan. We remain committed to stability on the Korean peninsula, and to the freedom and security of our allies."
Especially in the past two years, North Korea has depended on much of its security for China, which supplies Pyongyang with much-needed aid and investment. China has also used its influence to block U.N. measures against North Korea, and U.S. officials have called on China to use its influence to encourage North Korea's liberalization.
Almost nothing is known about how Kim Jong Un, if he successful takes power, will run the country.