TOKYO -- North Korea's jittery neighbors expressed shock and concern yesterday at the death of Kim Il Sung, reclusive architect of the hermit state who managed to terrorize and intrigue the world during almost a half-century of authoritarian rule.
Chief among their concerns is the turn the simmering conflict between North and South Korea is likely to take now that the man who single-handedly directed the Stalinist state is gone, and what impact his death will have on the tortured attempts to stop North Korea's development of nuclear weapons.
The 82-year-old North Korean leader was officially reported yesterday to have died from a heart attack early Friday morning. His physical condition had long been thought to be poor.
But Mr. Kim persistently defied predictions of imminent death, outlasting other world leaders from the time of his first appearance on the world stage -- Harry Truman, Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung -- and many of their successors. Recent visitors to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and evangelist Billy Graham, described Mr. Kim as alert and vigorous.
His death comes at a time when North Korea finally seemed to want to link up with the rest of the world and was using its nuclear development program as the strongest card to induce Western acceptance. The death of Mr. Kim also leaves a highly disciplined, million-member army controlled by a successor, his son, Kim Jong Il, who is viewed as unstable and unpopular, even though he is officially revered almost as much as his father.
In South Korea where political leaders typically play down tensions with the North, President Kim Young Sam went on national television to put forces on his side of the border on alert for "any contingency."
(Kim is as common a name among Koreans as Smith is among Americans; the two rivals are not related.)
In Japan, the so-called national self-defense forces announced that they were ready for any emergency. Political leaders canceled trips abroad that had been scheduled to follow the current meeting of senior world officials in Naples, Italy. Flags were lowered to half-staff at hundreds of buildings and schools used by the country's large population of pro-North Korean residents.
China, a crucial Kim ally after his launch of the Korean War 44 years ago, and still North Korea's closest ally, said it felt "deep sadness." Cambodian King Sihanouk bemoaned the loss of his "best friend," and Singapore and the Philippines stated they hoped the death of the aged leader would not lead to instability on the Korean Peninsula.
In Pyongyang, tens of thousands of weeping people -- exhorted by government broadcasts -- were reported to be gathering in front of a huge statue of Mr. Kim.
Following the initial announcement of Mr. Kim's death, the official government radio news agency returned to the programming that has dominated his egomaniacal rule with glorified tales of the man publicly referred to as "Great Leader."
He was born as Kim Sung Ju, and his background was filled with gaps. His legend began in 1945, shortly after the Japanese occupation of Korea ended, when he came to prominence with the assistance of the Soviet Army and took the name of a mythical freedom fighter. Within three years, he was ruler of North Korea and through continuous purges and obsessive propaganda developed a remarkable personality cult.
By the time of his death, he was largely credited with every scientific, agricultural, and artistic achievement his country produced. Every classroom has his portrait; every lapel sports a pin with his picture.
As the tales of his Herculean achievements dominated the airwaves yesterday, he continued to envelop North Korea from the grave, as omnipresent, mythical and unapproachable as ever.
Analysts who watch Korea worried that the nuclear discussions in Geneva and the planned North-South summit might stall without Mr. Kim. The official state ideology infused by Mr. Kim during the 1960s -- juche -- stressed independence and self-reliance. It isn't clear that anyone but Mr. Kim can reach an agreement with the outside world without suffering a debilitating loss of face.
And worse could be to come.
Signals are complex
Analyzing the inner workings of North Korea has always been a process of observing tiny signs and making large assumptions, often with dire miscalculations. Intelligence sources are minimal, news coverage tightly controlled. As is often the case, this time the signals emanating from the Stalinist state are complex and inconsistent.
The announcement of Mr. Kim's death came almost a day and a half after his death. The long lag in reporting, say some North Korea watchers, and the odd timing of the death itself, just before the historic summit, suggested foul play in the struggle between hard-liners and North Koreans who want to move toward a rapprochement with the outside world.
Another interpretation offered by watchers in Japan and South Korea for the long delay is that it reflected the new leadership's ability to smoothly coordinate the succession of Mr. Kim's 52-year-old son, Kim Jong Il.
Officially designated as "Dear Leader," a slightly less important sobriquet than his late father held as "Great Leader," the pudgy, bespectacled heir apparent has a reputation for liking drink, beautiful young women and Western films.
Kim Jong Il was officially designated the heir apparent in 1980. Soon afterward, Radio Pyongyang began broadcasting miraculous, Christ-like tales, of his life, from the star and rainbows that appeared over his place of birth, to his ability to control the rain for troubled farmers, to his taming of dragons for use in the construction of public works.
Purges are numerous
His ascension has been reinforced by numerous purges of senior North Korean officials, beginning in the mid-1970s, according to North Korea watchers in Seoul associated with the South Korean government. In 1991, he was made head of the military, and there was no doubt that his father wished him to inherit leadership.
An announcement by North Korea that the younger Mr. Kim will chair the committee in charge of arrangements for the funeral July 17 signified, according to several analysts, that he had consolidated his power. Late yesterday, Radio Pyongyang, the official government news source, urged North Koreans to support the younger Mr. Kim as the "reliable successor" to his father, "the great son of humanity."
More concrete evidence of a stable transfer in power may be delayed. In accordance with North Korean customs, the younger Mr. Kim, always reclusive, will likely spend the next
week in mourning and have little, if any, public contact, said Lee Sang-Kwon of the Shin A News Agency, who has monitored broadcasts from Pyongyang for more than four decades.
Other than Kim Jong Il, there is no obvious successor, but suspicions abound that a vast change in North Korea's leadership could be just beginning.
Kim Jong Il is believed to have demonstrated the capacity for tremendous cruelty, and showed none of the charisma nor the cunning ofhis father, who managed to crush weaker internal opponents while adroitly playing more powerful countries, such as the United States, Russia and China, off against one another.
The younger Mr. Kim has been linked to two of the most notorious terrorist incidents of the past decade, a 1983 Rangoon bombing that killed half of South Korea's Cabinet, and the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air Lines jet that left 115 dead.
Moreover, consistent reports out of South Korea, largely drawn from defectors, suggest that North Korea's powerful military establishment distrusts Kim Jong Il, who, before being named the supreme commander, was one of the few citizens of the country never to have served in the armed forces.
He 'cannot succeed'
"Kim Jong Il cannot succeed," said Lee Young Hwa, a lecturer at Kansai University and an authority on North Korea. "The food situation of North Korea is severe, the oppression is severe, and he has no popularity.
"For three months, Kim Jong Il will be in charge," Mr. Lee predicted. "Within a year, the regime will fall to a coup d'etat, or an uprising of the North Korean people."
In a strong indication of concern by the new ruler, no foreigners will be permitted to attend the funeral, not even North Korean residents of Japan who have long provided financial support and loyalty to Pyongyang.
NORTH KOREA: THE HERMIT NATION
Economy: Rich natural resources include coal, iron ore and hydro power. Agriculture dominated by rice. Estimated gross domestic product product $900. Food shortages, possibly famines, regularly reported.
Government: Totalitarian system with one party, communist Korean Workers Party, that leads cult following of Kim Il Sung.
History: Once an independent kingdom, Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910.
1945 -- Soviet and U.S. troops enter Korea and set up occupation zones in the North and South. After negotiations to unite Korea fail, Democratic People's Republic of Korea established in North and the Republic of Korea in South.
1950 -- Under President Kim Il Sung, North invades South, setting off Korean War. U.N. force dominated by U.S. troops drives North back to China. China then joins North and two sides fight to stalemate.
1953 -- Armistice signed. No peace treaty.
Foreign Relations: Relies heavily on aid from China and, before its collapse, Soviet Union. Believed responsible for several acts of international terrorism aimed at South Korea.
Nuclear Program Conflict
1985 -- North Korea signs Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but does not accept inspections by International Atomic Energy Agency.
1989 -- Yongbyon reactor refueled; enough plutonium probably taken out to made crude nuclear weapon.
May 19: new refueling started; IAEA demands to inspect fuel rods.
May 31: IAEA says North Korea unloading fuel secretly.
June 6: U.S pushes for sanctions against Korea.
June 12: North Korea quits IAEA.
June 15: Former President Carter visits and secures pledge not to expel IAEA inspectors.
June 16: Two Koreas agree to hold first-ever summit.
June 22: North Korea agrees to suspend nuclear program; U.S. suspends push for sanctions.
July 7: U.S and Korea hold high-level talks in Geneva to resolve nuclear dispute.
July 8: President Kim dies. Geneva talks suspended. Summit uncertain.