The front pages of selected Shanghai newspapers reporting on the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Kim Jong Il, the son of the late North Korean president Kim Il Sung, appeared to be consolidating his hold on power in the Communist state today as grief-stricken North Koreans mourned the death of the man they viewed as the father of their country.

Kim Il Sung’s death, which occurred Friday, prompted a North Korean delegation in Geneva to suspend newly opened talks with the United States on Pyongyang’s nuclear program and clouded the prospects for an unprecedented summit between the leaders of North and South Korea that had been scheduled for later this month.

While it was difficult to determine what was happening politically in the isolated country, signs indicated that Kim Jong Il, 52, the late president’s chosen heir, would take over at least initially as leader and as commander of the nation’s million-member armed forces.

On Sunday, Radio Pyongyang declared that “all the people of the nation are... devoting themselves even more completely to the governance of our beloved leader, comrade Kim Jong Il,” the Associated Press reported from Seoul. Official news reports signaled Kim Jong Il’s succession, with one saying he is “standing at the head of our revolution” — but stopped short of announcing a transfer of power.

Kim Jong Il was named to head the committee organizing the funeral of his father, who had built the world’s largest personality cult and was viewed by North Koreans as a demigod. Until now, Kim Il Sung, chosen to rule the North by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1948, was the only leader North Koreans have known.

Several North Korean leaders were heard on radio broadcasts expressing loyalty to the younger Kim, known by the country’s 23 million people as the “Dear Leader.” And China, the North’s closest ally despite recently strained ties, endorsed Kim Jong Il as successor while praising his father as a “long-tested” great leader and appealing for an orderly transition.

President Clinton, in Italy for an economic summit, extended condolences to the people of North Korea and said that he hopes the U.S.-North Korea talks in Geneva would continue after an appropriate pause. The North Korean delegation asked U.S. negotiator Robert Gallucci to remain in Geneva so the talks can be resumed, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in Naples.

U.S. forces stationed in South Korea were not put on military alert because, Clinton said, “there was no evident alarming change” in North Korea’s military position.

However, the armed forces of South Korea, Pyongyang’s bitter rival since the two split in 1948, were put on alert and all leaves were canceled. Top officials said they had no reason to expect any trouble from the North, which has threatened in the past to respond to pressure about its secret nuclear program with military force.

Panmunjom, the village in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas along the world’s last Cold War frontier, was reported tense but quiet. A huge flag on the northern side was flying at half-staff. Funeral music blared over propaganda loudspeakers.

Many visitors to Pyongyang have reported that the North Korean government appears to be split between a pragmatic group that wants broader ties with foreign countries, including the United States, and a militaristic hard-line group that insists no foreigners can be trusted.

South Korean analysts say hard-liners may have been frightened and angered last month when Kim Il Sung declared in a meeting with former president Jimmy Carter that North Korea would “freeze” its nuclear development program. The talks begun in Geneva on Friday between the United States and North Korea were scheduled following that announcement, and the Clinton administration hoped to persuade Pyongyang to end the program, possibly in exchange for aid in developing nuclear power.

The CIA has said North Korea’s present nuclear program is designed to produce plutonium fuel for nuclear weapons and that the country probably already has enough weapons-grade plutonium to build a bomb.

With Kim dead, the South Korean government seemed to take it as given that the first North-South summit meeting scheduled for July 25, which was also arranged by Carter, would be postponed or even canceled.

South Korean President Kim Young Sam said he would attend the summit with any leader North Korea might designate. But he indicated that he doubts the North will settle its leadership question soon enough to meet the summit schedule. “When we were to meet in 15 days, I had planned to discuss peace and the future of Koreans,” the South Korean president said. “I regret that I cannot do it.”

In Seoul’s main rail station, people watched a giant television screen, many missing their trains to hear the news of Kim Il Sung’s death, the Associated Press reported. In the central bus station, travelers clutched one another in shock.

A taxi driver was furious: “I can’t believe he died now, when things were working out,” he said, slamming his fist on the dashboard.

However, some were jubilant and said Kim’s death might mean an earlier chance at unification of North and South. “While Kim Il Sung was alive, change was unimaginable,” said an elderly man. He said he believed that peace could not be achieved while North Korea was ruled by the man whose invasion of the South in 1950 started the Korean War.

In North Korea, the national mood was set by state broadcasters. Tapes of the televised announcement of Kim’s death showed that the announcer broke down midway through his two-sentence statement and was still sobbing deeply as he finished.

“The Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung, was the greatest of the great men who had all the qualities and traits of a great man on the highest level and enjoyed deep reverence and respect from all of our people and the people of the world,” the Korean Central News Agency said.

Following the announcement, radio and TV stations devoted the rest of the day to reading every word of Kim Il Sung’s three-volume memoirs. In this work, Kim sets forth the claim on which he based his one-man rule: that he was the military leader who defeated Japan in World War II and liberated Korea from colonial rule.

Japan’s NHK network reported that thousands of weeping people streamed past the gleaming 100-foot-tall statue of Kim in Pyongyang, a city filled with vast monuments, shrines, museums and portraits honoring him.

North Korea’s state-controlled radio said an autopsy had determined that Kim, a fitness buff, had suddenly suffered a heart attack on Thursday and died at 2 a.m. Friday of “cardiac infarction.”

A nine-day period of mourning was announced, with Kim’s body to be put on display for grieving citizens. A funeral was set for July 17, but no foreign delegations were being invited.

While the elder Kim had long ago begun grooming the younger Kim to succeed him, there were some signs recently that the father was backing away from his oft-stated pledge to transfer power to his son.

In 1992, on his 80th birthday, Kim Il Sung said the transfer was underway. But last month, Kim told Carter that he planned to rule another 10 years before his son could take over.

Moreover, a series of recent personnel shake-ups in Pyongyang seemed to diminish the stature of those close to Kim Jong Il and to enhance the circle of people close to Kim Il Sung’s second wife. Kim Jong Il’s stepbrother, Kim Pyong Il, was called home this spring from his post as ambassador to Bulgaria, evidently for a senior position in Pyongyang.

When Carter was in Pyongyang last month, he asked repeatedly to meet Kim Jong Il, but Kim Il Sung denied his son the prestigious opportunity of meeting a former U.S. president.

North Korean observers said that while the official cause of death was heart failure, foul play could not be ruled out, even though White House national security adviser Anthony Lake said in Naples that the United States has no reason to conclude that Kim’s death was unnatural.

“It’s probably most likely this was a heart attack,” said Kim Chang Soon, director of South Korea’s Institute for North Korean Studies. “But there are also several reasons to think it could have been an assassination.

“One suspicious point is North Korea’s statement that no foreigners will be allowed to attend the funeral,” something almost unimaginable for a man who loved to have foreign visitors attend his big ceremonies, he said.

“Another suspicion stems from this report that there was an autopsy,” Kim Chang Soon continued. He said cutting the body of a parent is undesirable in Confucian societies. He said the autopsy might have been used to cover up any possible signs of foul play and to add credence to the official explanation of a heart attack.

Visitors who saw Kim within the past month, including Carter, described him as vigorous and alert.

Kim was proud of his good health, and had created a Kim Il Sung Laboratory of Longevity in Pyongyang, where 2,000 researchers studied ways to keep him alive longer. Dozens of people about the same age as Kim were subjected to experimental longevity treatments there, according to Koh Yon Ha, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South.

Special correspondent Lee Keumhyun in Seoul contributed to this report.

Read more about North Korea:

The life and times of Kim Jong Il

Kim leaves behind an antiquated country

North Koreans mourn Kim’s death

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