Kim was believed to have suffered from multiple chronic illnesses, but his death — reportedly from a heart attack while traveling by train on Saturday morning — was sudden. He had been grooming a son to succeed him, and his death creates uncertainty about the future direction of a nation with few international friends but a nuclear weapons capability.
His foreign-educated son, Kim Jong Un, who is in his 20s and is seen by most as the next leader, is largely unknown outside North Korea, to the point that even his exact age is debated. The elder Kim had raised his son’s profile and responsibilities over the last 18 months, but North Korea’s murky inner workings make it uncertain whether that succession will take.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak held an emergency meeting with the nation’s top military officials and put them on high alert. But the move was seen as a formality, and there was little open sign of nervousness in Seoul at Kim’s passing.
Many South Korean experts said that China faces the greatest risk if the leadership transition does not go smoothly and predicted that Beijing would soon send high-ranking officials to show support for the younger Kim.