Japan preparing for unexpected after Kim's death

Reuters , Monday 19 Dec 2011

Japan's prime minister urges his ministers to strengthen information gathering efforts and boost security coordination after North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il dies

Kim Jong Il
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (L) walks in front of his youngest son Kim Jong-un (R) as they watch a parade to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang in this October 10, 2010 file photo. (Photo: Reuters)

Japan scurried to prepare for the unexpected on Monday after news that Kim Jong-il, the leader of its unpredictable neighbour North Korea, had died of a heart attack.

"We hope this sudden event does not have an adverse effect on the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a news conference after a hastily called ministerial meeting on security.

"Prime Minister (Yoshihiko) Noda told members of the security meeting to strengthen information gathering efforts, work closely and share information with relevant states including the United States, South Korea and China, and to prepare for any unexpected circumstances. The government hopes to take appropriate action as needed," Fujimura added.

But he said the ministers at the security meeting had reached no conclusion on whether to raise the level of alert for Japan's military.

"I ordered each division within the ministry to do their utmost in information gathering and in staying vigilant and watchful," a Defence Ministry spokesman quoted Defence Minister Yasuo Ichikawa as saying.

Fujimura said the matter might be raised in subsequent meetings. "At present, we have no confirmation on the successor but we're closely watching. According to the North Korean announcement, they will accept people expressing condolences from December 20 to 27 and the funeral will be held on 28 December in Pyongyang," he said.

"We need to watch risks related to the succession."

Kim died of a heart attack on Saturday while on a train trip, state media reported on Monday, sparking immediate concern over who is in control of the reclusive state and its nuclear programme.

Japan's ties with North Korea, with which it has no diplomatic relations, have long been fraught due to Pyongyang's bitterness over Japan's 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula, Tokyo's worries about North Korea's missile and nuclear programmes, and Japanese anger over the abduction of its citizens by North Korean agents decades ago.

Talks to normalise ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang have been halted for years with the issue of the Japanese abductees, an emotional subject in Japan, a major obstacle.

The report of Kim's death grabbed immediate headlines in Japan, where newspapers issued extra editions.

Some Tokyo residents said they were concerned about what will happen next inside the borders of their unpredictable neighbour.

"I am worried indeed. I am very interested in knowing how this will all turn out," 73-year-old retiree Kosuke Yoshimasa told Reuters.

Another retiree, 68-year-old Michiko Matsuzaki, sounded a note of cautious optimism. "I hope this will lead North Korea to become more democratic," she said.

Japan, like others in the region, will be watching to see what stance Pyongyang adopts towards the outside world following Kim Jong-il's death and whether his youngest son, Kim Jong-un -- seen as the leader-in-waiting -- can consolidate his power.

"At present, when they are trying to firm up their internal regime, they are more likely to prioritise firming domestic stability, rather than trying to boost tension with the outside," said Tadashi Kimiya, a Tokyo University professor who specialises in Korean affairs.

"If the government cannot exercise control there will be confusion and instability," he added.

Kimiya said he did not expect any sudden flood of refugees from North Korea headed for Japan nor did he think Pyongyang's military was likely to take aggressive military action.

Security was tight at the Tokyo headquarters of the General Association of Korean Residents of Japan, Pyongyang's de facto diplomatic mission in Japan, where a North Korean flag flew at half-mast.

Japan has about 400,000 permanent residents who are ethnic Koreans backing either Seoul or Pyongyang, many of them descendents of those brought here as forced labour when the peninsula was a Japanese colony. 

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