WASHINGTON - Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader who realized his family’s dream of turning his starving country into a minor nuclear-weapons power even as it sank further into despotism, has died at what is reported to be the age of 69, according to the country’s state-run news media.
His death, after a long illness, ended 17 years of rule over the isolated, paranoid country that his father founded, and that Kim made clear he wanted to pass on to his son, Kim Jong Un.
But it is far from clear whether the North Korean military will bless the continuation of the family dynasty, and American and Asian officials were on alert last night for any signs that the country, which has almost inexplicably avoided collapse in recent decades, could begin to fracture.
The cause of death, according to the North Korean media, was “over-fatigue’’ and “cardiac infarction.’’ He is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008.
Under Kim’s rule, the North accomplished the single milestone that his father had dreamed about, exploding two crude nuclear devices, one in 2006 and another in 2009, just months after President Obama took office. But while the tests may have given the country a measure of protection against a US invasion, which Kim Jong Il and his military leaders long feared, they also deepened his isolation.
The 2009 test killed any discussion inside the Obama White House of reaching out to the North Korean leadership, especially after Kim largely abandoned agreements he reached with George W. Bush’s administration to denuclearize.
As defense secretary, Robert M. Gates seemed to summarize the Obama administration’s attitude toward the North when he declared that the United States would not provide aid to the country in return for its making new commitments to give up nuclear weapons.
“I don’t want to buy the same horse twice,’’ he said on repeated occasions.
Late yesterday, the White House said in a statement that it was closely monitoring reports of Kim Jong Il’s death and was in close touch with South Korea and Japan. “We remain committed to stability on the Korean Peninsula, and to the freedom and security of our allies.’’
The Obama administration may postpone decisions on reengaging the country in nuclear talks and providing it with food aid, US officials said yesterday.
The administration had been expected to decide on both issues this week, possibly as early as today, but the officials said Kim’s death probably would delay the process.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. They said the United States was particularly concerned about any changes in the military postures of North and South Korea but were hopeful that calm would prevail.
South Korea put its military on high alert, and its Parliament convened emergency committee sessions on national defense, intelligence, and unification affairs. South Korea’s president, Lee Myung Bak, convened a national security council meeting.
Kim’s death also poses difficult choices for China, the North’s longtime ally. Little is known about Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be in his late 20s but is unknown to world leaders. Until two years ago, the only picture the CIA had of him showed him in short pants at a school he briefly attended in Switzerland.
He is believed to have been involved in two attacks on the South in 2010, events that may have been intended to create his bona fides as a military leader.
Unlike Kim Jong Il, his son has had little time to be groomed in the art of running a dysfunctional country of roughly 23 million people. For that reason, there is considerable speculation that the military may create a regent to run the country, and it is unclear whether there is much allegiance, if any, to Kim Jong Un.
But so little is known about the inner workings of the country that the United States and China have frequently been taken by surprise.
When the country’s revered founder, Kim Il Sung, known as the “Great Leader,’’ died in summer 1994, there was considerable question about whether Kim Jong Il, known for his fascination with Western movies, European women, and drinking binges, would be accepted as the country’s leader.
But he managed to consolidate his power within a year or two, and he quickly established that he could be as brutal in controlling the country as his father was. The gulags and re-education camps swelled, and the country’s brief experiments with allowing some market forces into a state-controlled economy - a move the Chinese tried to encourage - were largely abandoned.
And as the youngest son emerged as Kim Jong Il’s chosen successor, many were taken by surprise.
As recently as February 2009, the American Consulate in Shanghai - a significant collection point for intelligence about North Korea - sent cables reporting that the Chinese who knew North Korea best disbelieved the rumors that Kim Jong Un was being groomed to run the country. Several Chinese scholars with good contacts in the North said they thought it was likely that “a group of high-level military officials’’ would take over, and that “at least for the moment none of KJI’s three sons is likely to be tapped to succeed him.’’
The oldest son was dismissed as “too much of a playboy,’’ the middle son as “more interested in video games’’ than governing. Kim Jong Un, they said, was too young and inexperienced.
But within months, a senior Chinese diplomat, Wu Jianghao, was telling his US counterparts that Kim Jong Il was using nuclear tests and missile launchings as part of an effort to put his third son in place to succeed him, despite his youth.
“Wu opined that the rapid pace of provocative actions in North Korea was due to Kim Jong Il’s declining health and might be part of a gambit under which Kim Jong Il would escalate tensions with the United States so that his successor, presumably Kim Jong Un, could then step in and ease those tensions,’’ the embassy reported back to Washington in June 2009, in a cable made public in the WikiLeaks trove.
But carrying out plans for an easy ascension may be more difficult than expected. In February 2010, the US Consulate in Shenyang, China, reported rumors that Kim Jong Un “had a hand’’ in the decision to revalue the North’s currency, which wiped out the scarce savings of most North Koreans and created such an outcry that one official was executed for his role in the sudden financial shift. The cables also describe secondhand reports of palace intrigue in the North, with other members of the Kim family preparing to serve as regents to Kim Jong Un - or to unseat him after Kim Jong Il’s death.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.