South Korea responded to news of Kim Jong-il's death by placing its military on high alert on Monday, with renewed fears of regional instability as a new North Korean government under Mr. Kim's son Kim Jong-un looks to assert control.
While South Korean officials reported on Monday that the North had test-fired a short-range missile shortly after announcing Mr. Kim's death — it was, however, unclear whether the missile test was a related event — the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul placed all military units on emergency alert. “The military will likely step up their vigilance on the border,” an official told the Yonhap news agency. “I hope as a soldier that this will not lead to a military provocation like the Cheonan attack or Yeonpyeong Island bombing,” he said, referring to two incidents last year that strained ties between the neighbours.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told his Cabinet Ministers on Monday “to ensure that the North Korean leader's death will not pose a threat to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula”.
“Peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula is more important than anything else,” Mr. Lee was quoted as saying.
Mr. Kim's death, analysts fear, could derail recent moves to kick-start the stalled Six-Party talks — involving China, Japan, the United States and Russia, besides the Korean neighbours — to get the North to abandon its nuclear programme and move the Korean peninsula towards denuclearisation.
The North has, in recent months, signalled it would be willing to return to the talks. Even in recent days, reports said the North was considering striking a deal with the U.S. for food aid. In return, it would suspend its uranium enrichment programme.
Any breakthrough would now be unlikely, analysts said, as the new leadership under Kim Jong-un would focus on maintaining political stability at home.
“It is likely that such negotiations would be postponed as North Korea goes through a mourning period, formalised succession process, and possible retrenchment of its foreign policies,” said Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Centre at The Heritage Foundation.
“[His death] is not good news for the Six-Party Talks,” added Gong Keyu, deputy director of the Centre for Asian-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies and a leading Chinese scholar on North Korea.
“I think nothing will happen for some time. If he is like his father, when Kim Il-sung died, Kim Jong-il, for three years, had a ‘wait and see' approach. So this time too, maybe nothing will happen. Kim Jong-un will pay more attention to his [political] system, not to Six-Party Talks or nuclear weapons. He will not be interested in denuclearisation.”
At the heart of the question of how events in the region will unfold is the opaque internal politics in Pyongayng. Little is known for certain about how much influence the younger Mr. Kim, thought to be in his late 20s, will be able wield.
According to analysts, his father had already set up an inner circle to support his son. Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law, Chang Song-taek, and sister Kim Kyoung-hui, are both regarded as being crucial sources of support, along with a small group of military generals. Both Mr. Chang and Ms. Kim were named as members of the funeral committee headed by Mr. Kim Jong-un that was announced on Monday.
Mr. Kim's death fell at a crucial time for both North and South Korea. For both countries, 2012 has been framed as a landmark year. While the South will see presidential elections next year, the North has declared 2012 as the year the country will become “a powerful and prosperous nation”.
April 2012 also marks the centennial birthday of Kim Il-sung — Kim Jong-il's father and the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea — which will be grandly celebrated, even as the nation struggles with food shortages and economic uncertainty. “Looking at the importance of 2012, there was a feeling that there would be an important development in relations between North and South,” said Ms. Gong. “But after Kim's death, we will now have to wait and see.”