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 Un, 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.
North Korea conducted at least one short-range missile test Monday, but U.S. officials said it appeared to be a preplanned event, even though they conceded Pyongyang had not given advance notice.
U.S. officials apparently learned of Kim’s death only when it was officially announced Monday, though that announcement from the North Korean government said he had died two days earlier.
Pentagon officials held several high-levels calls and video conferences with U.S. commanders in South Korea and the U.S. Pacific Command to make sure the right intelligence resources were in place, Dempsey said.
The Obama administration has been trying to revive so-called six-party talks on persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program but has made little headway in recent years. The talks involve the U.S., Japan, China, Russia, North Korea and South Korea.
The White House said in a statement that it was closely monitoring reports of Kim’s death.
"We remain committed to stability on the Korean peninsula, and to the freedom and security of our allies," the statement said. The Obama administration may postpone decisions on reengaging the North in nuclear talks and providing it with food aid, U.S. officials said.
-- David S. Cloud