Neighbours react warily to Kim death

19th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

North Korea's neighbours responded warily to news of Kim Jong-Il's death Monday, as the prospect of internal transition added another layer of unpredictability to the maverick nuclear-armed regime.

South Korea put its military on alert as news of Kim's death emerged from the hermit state, and Japan, which has also been the object of Pyongyang's aggression in the past, held an emergency cabinet security meeting.

But some European states voiced hope that the passing of the man known as the "Dear Leader" could be a turning point for the isolated and deeply impoverished Stalinist country.

Seoul was quick to contact Washington, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, as it moved to reassert the security alliance it has long relied on to contain the North.

A White House statement said the two presidents had "agreed to stay in close touch as the situation develops and agreed they would direct their national security teams to continue close co-ordination".

Beijing -- Pyongyang's oft-exasperated ally, which fears regime collapse could drive millions of refugees across its borders -- also offered its condolences on the news that Kim Jong-Il had suffered a fatal heart attack.

The succession of Kim's son Jong-Un appears to have been well planned and an immediate power struggle is unlikely, analysts believe, but they warn he may want to assert himself with military provocations at some point.

And North Korea test-fired a short-range missile off its east coast on Monday, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, although it also quoted an unnamed government official as saying the launch was unrelated to Kim's death.

US President Barack Obama called his close friend President Lee Myung-Bak of South Korea as its regional allies digested the death of the Stalinist state's volatile 69-year-old leader.

"The president reaffirmed the United States' strong commitment to the stability of the Korean peninsula and the security of our close ally, the Republic of Korea," the White House said in a statement.

The two leaders had agreed to stay in close touch and to "direct their national security teams to continue close coordination", the statement said, adding that Washington had also been in contact with Japan.

In Seoul, a defence ministry spokesman said "monitoring and security around border areas has been strengthened. We are paying close attention to any movements by the North's military".

"All commanders are on alert and the South and US are beefing up the sharing of military intelligence," the spokesman told AFP. "There have been no particular moves by the North's military yet."

Tokyo's top government spokesman offered rare condolences on the "passing" of the much-reviled Kim, before adding that Japan hoped there would be no "adverse impact on the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula".

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said he had ordered officials to boost intelligence-gathering on North Korea, to work closely with the US, China and South Korea, and to prepare for further unexpected developments.

Around 50,000 US troops are stationed in Japan, which has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and occasionally trades blows with the isolated state over issues including the unresolved kidnap of a number of Japanese nationals.

In China, a foreign ministry spokesman said: "We are shocked to learn that DPRK top leader comrade Kim Jong-Il passed away and we hereby express our deep condolences on his demise and send sincere regards to the DPRK people".

Analysts said Kim's death would be a source of concern to stability obsessed leaders in Beijing who would worry that his young heir has not had enough time to secure control over the government and military.

Kim Jong-Il visited China twice this year, most recently in August.

China is likely to come under international pressure to use its influence to dissuade the regime from carrying out more military provocations like those that rattled Asia last year when the North shelled a border island.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev -- who met Kim in Siberia in August -- also sent his condolences, a Kremlin spokesman said. News agencies reported that Medvedev had sent the telegram to Kim Jong-Un.

Further afield, EU president Herman Van Rompuy said "the EU is monitoring the situation closely and we count on the future Korean leadership to... commit to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula".

Britain expressed its hope that Kim's death might prove a "turning point".

"We hope that their new leadership will recognise that engagement with the international community offers the best prospect of improving the lives of ordinary North Korean people," said Foreign Secretary William Hague.

France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Paris was watching events, "hoping that one day the people of North Korea will be able to find freedom".

Germany, itself divided until 1990, also saw "a chance for things to change", stressing that North Korea must first give up its nuclear programme and improve the "catastrophic social situation of its own people".

Italy, the first G7 nation to establish diplomatic ties with North Korea, said it hoped "a new institutional phase can open as quickly as possible".

The Catholic Church in South Korea, which counts more than 10 percent of the population as its followers, said it hoped Kim's death "could be a sign that the Lord wants a fundamental change in the country".


© 2011 AFP

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