North Koreans mourn Kim Jong-il after 'heart attack'

The BBC's Lucy Williamson says news of the death has taken people by surprise

North Koreans are in mourning after the death of their leader, Kim Jong-il.

People wept openly on the streets of the capital, Pyongyang. State media said he had suffered a heart attack on Saturday, aged 69. He had been unwell.

The official news agency KCNA described one of his sons, Kim Jong-un, as the "great successor" whom North Koreans should unite behind.

Pyongyang's neighbours are on alert fearing instability in the poor and isolated nuclear-armed nation.

Start Quote

Comrade Kim Jong-il was the great leader of the North Korean people and a close friend of the Chinese people”

End Quote Liu Weimin Chinese foreign ministry

Following news of Mr Kim's death, South Korea put its armed forces on high alert and said the country was on a crisis footing. Japan's government convened a special security meeting.

China - North Korea's closest ally and biggest trading partner - expressed shock at the news of his death and pledged to continue making "active contributions to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in this region".

After meeting her Japanese counterpart Koichiro Gemba, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she hoped for a stable and peaceful transition in North Korea.

"We reiterate our hope for improved relations with the people of North Korea and remain deeply concerned about their well-being," she said.

North and South Korea are still technically at war, and the US has thousands of troops stationed in South Korea and Japan.

Hillary Clinton says the US and Japan want a stable transition in North Korea

BBC diplomatic correspondent James Robbins says Kim Jong-il's sudden death - before the regime had completed a power transfer to his young son - has led to new uncertainties in an already jittery and heavily armed corner of the world.

Governments around the world share the nervousness of ordinary people who live within missile and artillery range of North Korea's vast arsenal of weapons, both conventional and nuclear, our correspondent says.

Analysis

The death of Kim Jong-il is the ultimate moment of truth for North Korea. This strangest of regimes has survived for 20 years after most forms of communism elsewhere either perished or morphed into something more sensible. So we had best not underestimate its staying power.

Kim Jong-un inherits a poisoned chalice. This untried youth must now run a country both at odds with most of the world and oppressive of its long-suffering people - who may not obey forever, despite the remarkable scenes of publicly orchestrated grief which we are now witnessing.

Meanwhile, the UN General Assembly has overwhelmingly backed a resolution condemning human rights violations in North Korea.

The vote, scheduled before Mr Kim's death was announced, called for an end to "systematic, widespread and grave violations". North Korea rejected the resolution.

Asian stock markets fell after news of Mr Kim's death was announced.

Crying aloud

Mr Kim's death was announced in an emotional statement on national television.

The announcer, wearing black, struggled to keep back the tears as she said he had died of physical and mental over-work.

KCNA later reported that he had died of a "severe myocardial infarction along with a heart attack" at 08:30 local time on Saturday (23:30 GMT Friday).

He had been on a train at the time, for one of his "field guidance" tours, KCNA said.

North Korea

Kim Jong-il (file image)
  • Population about 23 million
  • One million-strong army thought to be world's fifth largest
  • Manufacturing output mainly geared to military's demands
  • All aspects of daily life strictly controlled by government
  • Daily food shortages; acute power cuts and poor infrastructure

The state news agency said a funeral would be held in Pyongyang on 28 December and Kim Jong-un would head the funeral committee. A period of national mourning has been declared from 17 to 29 December.

Images from inside the secretive state showed people in the streets of Pyongyang weeping at the news of his death.

Ruling party members in one North Korean county were shown by state TV banging tables and crying out loud, the AFP news agency reports.

"I can't believe it," a party member named as Kang Tae-Ho was quoted as saying. "How can he go like this? What are we supposed to do?"

Another, Hong Sun-Ok, said: "He tried so hard to make our lives much better and he just left like this."

KCNA said millions of North Koreans were "engulfed in indescribable sadness".

It said people were "convulsing with pain and despair" at their loss, but would unite behind his successor Kim Jong-un.

"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.

Little is known about Kim Jong-un. He was educated in Switzerland, is aged in his late 20s and is believed to be Kim Jong-il's third son - born to Mr Kim's reportedly favourite wife, the late Ko Yong-hui.

Analysis

Kim Jong-il's death is no real surprise. His public appearances have shown him visibly dwindling in much the way North Korea on his watch has shrivelled to an isolated pariah and a basket-case economy with one of the world's worst human rights records.

On the world stage Kim Jong-il has played a canny game of nuclear brinkmanship.

To the outside world he became a figure of curiosity, intrigue, even fun - the communist tyrant from central casting with his bouffant hairdo, khaki jumpsuits and plaform shoes.

But for his fellow countrymen there was nothing funny about him at all. The fact the announcement came two full days after his death, kept from the prying eyes of numerous intelligence agencies, is itself perhaps an ominous signal; that the secretive, authoritarian status quo he did so much to maintain is likely to prevail.

Kim Jong-un was unveiled as his father's likely successor just over a year ago. Many had expected to see this process further consolidated in 2012.

'Turning point'

Kim Jong-il inherited the leadership of North Korea from his father Kim Il-sung.

Shortly after he came to power in 1994, a severe famine caused by ill-judged economic reforms and poor harvests left an estimated two million people dead.

His regime has been harshly criticised for human rights abuses and is internationally isolated because of its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Under Mr Kim's leadership, funds have been channelled to the military and in 2006 North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.

It followed that up with a second one three years later. Multinational talks aimed at disarming North Korea have been deadlocked for months.

He had reportedly been in poor health since suffering a stroke in August 2008.

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