Kim Jong-il, North Korea's reclusive “Dear Leader” who ruled the country for 17 years, leading it to nuclear power status but also presiding over a devastating famine, died on Saturday. He was 69.
Kim suffered “an acute myocardial infarction complicated with a serious heart shock” while on a train journey on Saturday morning, the North Korean state media announced on Monday.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said his death was the result of “a great mental and physical strain caused by his uninterrupted field guidance tour for the building of a thriving nation.”
Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, who has been groomed as his successor, especially after the older Kim suffered a stroke in 2008, was expectedly named by the ruling Korean Workers' Party (KWP) as “the great successor.”
“Under the leadership of our comrade Kim Jong-un, we have to turn sadness into strength and courage and overcome today's difficulties,” the KWP said in a statement, calling on the country to rally behind him.
News of Kim's death immediately sparked concern in Seoul, Beijing and Washington, with long-persisting fears that an uncertain succession in the nuclear-armed state could cause regional instability.
Those concerns appeared well-founded on Monday, when South Korean officials said the North had test-fired a short-range missile into the sea off its eastern coast, just hours after announcing Kim's death, in a likely show of strength amid uncertainty.
South Korea responded to news of his death by placing its military on an emergency alert, with its Joint Chiefs of Staff increasing “monitoring activities” along the border, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Kim's death was announced to 23 million North Koreans on the state television on Monday morning. A woman newsreader read the news dressed in black, visibly emotional and in a trembling voice.
That the North Korean leader's death was unknown to the rest of the world for almost two days underscored how cut-off the “Hermit Kingdom” has remained under his iron-fisted rule, with the news even appearing to evade South Korean intelligence officials who closely monitor the reclusive country.
Kim's death is likely to stall any progress towards resumption of the suspended six-party talks aimed at getting the North to abandon its nuclear programme. The North quit the talks after conducting missile tests in 2009.