Politics & Government

Kim Jong Il death: U.S. wary of succession struggle in North Korea

REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials were closely monitoring North Korea for signs of instability or unusual military moves Monday after the death of longtime leader Kim Jong Il, concerned that his passing may set off a succession struggle and set back efforts to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. had not detected any unusual North Korean military moves. He said the Pentagon had not changed alert levels for the nearly 30,000 American troop stationed in South Korea.

"At this point, we have not seen any change in North Korean behavior," he told reporters at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. He did not say what indicators were being watched, except that "clearly some of them would be troop movements" and none had been detected.

“We're simply remaining vigilant,” he said.

North Korea conducted tests of nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009 and revealed a uranium enrichment program in 2010. Satellite imagery from last month revealed that construction of a new light-water nuclear reactor at Yongbyon was ongoing. North Korea is developing short-range, intermediate-range, and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and maintains a small number of cruise missiles.

U.S. officials long have worried that Kim¶s death after years in power could set off a succession struggle, especially since his son and designated successor, Kim Jong Eun, is considered inexperienced and lacks support in some parts of North Korea¶s powerful military establishment.

The son “has had little preparation in cultivating his own followers. He has no new ideology to associate with in his rise to power. I could not think of less ideal conditions — in a North Korean context — under which he could be given the reins of power,” said Victor Cha, a Korea expert at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former White House official.