As the world reeled from the shock of Kim Jong-il's death, Beijing expressed confidence in the future of North Korea yesterday, and analysts downplayed the possibility of instability in the country.
The news of the 69-year-old leader's death was made public by the Korean Central Television yesterday. It said Kim died Saturday morning from "great mental and physical strains" while on a train during a "field guidance tour."
The television called on North Koreans to unite under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, the "great successor," who is Kim Jong-il's youngest son and gradually came under the spotlight after his father reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008.
"We are shocked to learn that comrade Kim Jong-il passed away, and we hereby express our deep condolences on his demise and send sincere regards to the North Korean people," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said.
"Comrade Kim Jong-il was the great leader of the North Korean people, and an intimate friend of the Chinese people. He had made important contributions to developing the country's socialist cause and promoting good-neighborly and cooperative relations with China," Ma said.
In a statement, China Central Television called Kim Jong-il a "close friend" to China, and that Beijing has full confidence in the leadership of Kim Jong-un.
"The top priority for Kim Jong-un will be economic development. The second will be to focus on the relationship with China, and then will consider how to deal with South Korea and the US," Cui Zhiying, a professor specializing in the Korean Peninsula at Tongji University, told the Global Times.
Pyongyang and Washington are likely to proceed with their direct dialogue albeit at a slower pace, Cui said.
Choi Choon-heum, a senior researcher with the Korean Institute for National Unification, predicted a smooth power transition.
"Kim Jong-un was trained by his father and there is support from China, there is no particular problem for him to take over power. But, in the long run, if Kim Jong-un cannot keep a firm grip on power as his father did, there would be trouble," Choi told the Global Times.
"We are worried that the North Korea military may act aggressively toward the South," said Choi, who also expressed concerns over the possibility of nuclear proliferation.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) placed all military units on emergency alert yesterday. President Lee Myung-bak ordered all government employees to be on emergency alert, a measure that would restrict their unauthorized leaves, the Yonhap News Agency reported.
JCS chief Jung Seung-jo and James Thurman, commander of US forces in South Korea, agreed not to raise the level of the Watchcon surveillance status.
"Since North Korea is in a lot of shock after its leader passed away, the generals decided South Korea and the US shouldn't create an unnecessary sense of crisis," Yonhap quoted a military official as saying.
An unnamed South Korean official told Yonhap that North Korea test-fired a short-range missile on its eastern coast yesterday morning, probably before the announcement of Kim Jong-il's death.
"This is something that the military has continued to do, and we believe it is not related to the death of Kim Jong-il," the official said.
"In this sensitive time, the North may want to use the missile test to demonstrate its strength and solidarity and warn others not to intervene in its domestic affairs," Cui said.
The White House said the US is in close touch with South Korea and Japan over the issue.
"President Barack Obama held a phone conversation with Lee following Kim Jong-il's death. Obama reaffirmed Washington's strong commitment to the stability of the Korean Peninsula and the security of South Korea," the White House said in a statement.
Also yesterday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda cancelled a speech on social welfare and tax reform following reports of the death of Kim Jong-il, the Jiji News Agency reported.
Noda had urged officials to keep in touch with the US, China and South Korea over the issue, the Kyodo News cited a senior official as saying.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters that Japan hopes Kim's death has no negative impact on the security of the Korean Peninsula.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement that the death of Kim Jong-il "could be a turning point for North Korea."
"We encourage North Korea to work for peace and security in the region and take the steps necessary to allow the resumption of the Six-Party talks on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," Hague said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also sent his condolences to Pyongyang.
"We hope that the loss which has befallen this amicable people will not affect the future development of our friendly relations," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow.