TODAY | December 19, 2011
>>> we begin now this breaking news, the death of north korean leader kim jong -il. andrea mitchell joins us now details on this. andrea, good morning.
>> good morning, ann. although north korea 's dictator was ailing for years, his death was sudden, taking his people, the u.s., and north korea 's neighbors by surprise. president obama called south korea 's president at midnight. north korea fired several short-range missiles as well and the world is watching for possible instability during the transition of power to kim 's little-known and little-prepared younger son. early monday in north korea a tearful state tv announcer revealed kim jong -il died saturday while traveling on a train on a "field guidance tour." in south korea , people gathered in public places to watch coverage of kim 's death. meanwhile south korean president lee myung bak convened an emergency meeting asking military leaders to stay on alert. the white house also released a statement saying "we remain committed to stability on the korean peninsula and to the freedom and security of our allies." kim 's north korea was isolated and unpredictable and often seen more like a cult than a country. at times bizarre but also dangerous, impoverishing and enslaving his own people, while arming himself with nuclear weapons and threatening to annihilate his dictator. it was easy to make fun of his hairdo and cocktails, he was a fan of fast cars, and fine foods. diplomats describe kim as shrewd, calculating, well practiced at the use of frets and force to win aid and successfully fending's you have efforts to rein in his nuclear weapons program . madeleine albright on her visit to north korea , the first ever by an american official. when asked if kim could be trusted albright replied --
>> i just can assure you that these glasses that i have on are not rose colored.
>> reporter: in 2009 when laura ling and euna lee were chargarrested and charged, former president clinton secured the journalists' release. kim jong -il called his people sunflowers of loyalty they suffereder it fwli, hundreds of thousands dying of starvation, a network of brutal prison camps housing those who questioned his rule or tried to escape from it. he inherited the job in 1994 from kim il -sung, who though dead remains eternally present to his people. as kim jong -il's health began to fail his featured ravaged by one stroke in 2008 . he grouped his younger son, kim jong -un to take over. a patrol boat was torpedoed, an island was shelled near the border. pyongyang revealed a large uranium enrichment facility, to prop up his son perhaps, who had few leader authorities. u.s. diplomats were in beijing to meet with north korean counterparts to give them food aid and announce nuclear disarmament talks. there was hope pyongyang would finally suspend its uranium enrichment program. there are concerns the north will try to provoke another incident while the new leader or the military try to take over.
>> let's talk about that first of all. we heard this word about at least one short range missile being fired, this report, also asian markets plunged this morning on the news and south korea 's military went on high alert. so what is the risk of greater instability in the region at least in the short term?
>> i think there is tremendous risk, not only short term but long-term because this is a young, untested leader. the military is going to try to weigh in and have its way, have its say with this young man. he is not prepared by all accounts, very little is known about him but he is young, and he's only had a couple of years being groomed for this, and north korea has always used force and the threats of force to try to show its strength, when it is weakest and right now is a very, very troubling time and it is clear that south korea and japan as well as the united states are going to be on alert.
>> we were looking at videotape now showing just how young this son, the great successor is. is it possible there will be a power struggle in north korea ?
>> it is possible. the military long viewed him with suspicion. there were several sons. this was the personal choice of the leader, of his father but there is no indication he has been able in these short years to get any kind of respect from the military. he was immediately promoted to four-star status a few years ago as, in the aftermath of the 2008 stroke, where his father realized how ill he was. he was only 69 and as we say this was a surprise, even though you could see from his physical stature shrinking that he was quite ill. the other possibility here, of course, is that you're going to see a resumption and expansion of the uranium enrichment program rather than what had been hoped was finally going to be some agreement.
>> so is there a balancing act this morning for the president in how president obama and how he reacts then to this news, given all of these issues you just pointed out?
>> yes, i think it's very clear they're not going to show any kind of military concern, they're not going to do anything obviously to go on alert. that is for south korea and the immediate neighbors to do. of course, one concern would be economic, would be refugees coming, not only to south korea , but also into china. china is going to be the main influence here as it always has been, when it chooses to, china can be a huge force for calm in the region, and china is now going to be the one that all of the neighbors as well as the united states , turns to, to exert some control on this transition in north korea .
>> we'll watch and see what china also does. andrea mitchell , thank you so much.