Immediately after the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was announced, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Monday told his administration to “take all possible measures to prepare for the unexpected.”
Kim’s death, which occurred Saturday but was only revealed Monday noon by the Pyongyang media, put the Japanese government on alert for signs of an internal collapse in the isolated nation that could turn into a state of emergency.
The prime minister also ordered the government to collect information on developments inside the North and share information with other countries, including the United States, South Korea and China.
At a hastily called news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura revealed that the government had no prior word of Kim’s death and said he would keep a careful eye on the situation in Pyongyang.
“I would like to offer my condolences upon hearing the news of the sudden death of the North Korea National Defense Commission Chair Kim Jong Il,” Fujimura said. “I would first like to hope that the peace and stability of North Korea will not be disturbed due to this unexpected situation.”
Fujimura said that Japan’s security level has not been raised but refused to comment on whether the government has detected any abnormalities on the Korean Peninsula, including signs that Pyongyang may launch a missile.
“There were some reports in the government’s security conference but I will not comment on the content,” Fujimura said.
While the leader’s third son, Kim Jong Un, is expected to take his father’s place, there is concern about whether there will be a smooth transition. Experts say Kim’s death could lead to the collapse of the communist state, which has continued to develop nuclear and ballistic missile programs despite harsh international criticism.
Security expert Takashi Kawakami said that the situation was extremely tense and that there is deep concern about the status of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. If there are doubts about the security of the weapons, the U.S. military will likely intervene, he said.
“Right now is the peak of tension — the developments from now on will determine whether the situation will be a hard or soft landing,” Kawakami, a professor at Takushoku University, said. “All we can do is wait and see what happens. But it is a touch-and-go situation in which the U.S. might intervene or South Korea might head up north.”
Tokyo has been urging Pyongyang to resolve the past kidnappings of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents and to return to the six-party talks with the U.S., South Korea, China and Russia to end its nuclear ambitions. It is still unclear how Kim’s death will affect those controversial issues but the Japanese government will continue to keep “close observation.”
“No one can see what is actually going on in North Korea and the whole world has their eyes on it,” Kawakami said.
Noda, whose popularity has been dropping because of plans to raise the consumption tax, was originally set to hold his first street-corner speech at noon to outline various cost-cutting measures, including trimming the government’s wasteful spending. He had just left his office to head to Tokyo’s Shimbashi district only to immediately return upon hearing of the death of Kim Jong Il.