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(LEAD) Intelligence chief, defense minister learned of Kim's death from North's media

All Headlines 11:21 December 20, 2011

(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead, UPDATES throughout from 2-7 paras with more details, comments)
By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Dec. 20 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's main spy agency and the defense ministry were completely in the dark about the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il until Pyongyang made an announcement two days later, officials said Tuesday.

Their ignorance revealed serious problems with Seoul's intelligence gathering capabilities on the North.

The North's state media reported Monday that the 69-year-old Kim died of a heart attack on Saturday. After the announcement, South Korea's spy agency came under fire as President Lee Myung-bak was reported to have been in the dark until Pyongyang broke the news to the world two days after it happened.

On Tuesday, South Korea's parliament held various committees to discuss the aftermath of the top leader's death and draw up measures to cope with the North's leadership crisis with senior government officials.

In a parliamentary committee on intelligence, Won Sei-hoon, the chief of the main South Korean spy agency National Intelligence Service (NIS), said he learned of Kim's death after the North's announcement.

"Other countries, including China, were in a similar situation," Won was quoted as saying in the closed session by Kwon Young-se, the ruling party lawmaker who chaired the meeting.

Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, who was at the parliament to brief a defense reform bill at the time of the North's announcement, made a similar remark.

"I learned (of Kim's death) after watching the news," Kim said during the defense parliamentary meeting. "Figuring out Kim Jong-il's death under the current defense intelligence system is somewhat limited, but I desperately felt the need to beef up our intelligence capacity."

He also said other regional powers, including the U.S., and Japan, were not aware of the death in advance "as far as is known."

Political parties are paying close attention to the power transition and a possible power struggle in the North, as Kim's heir-apparent son, Kim Jong-un, aged in his late 20s, was effectively tapped to be the communist state's next leader.

Whether Kim's youngest son can propel the impoverished dynasty with nuclear ambition into a third generation of leadership is a crucial issue to domestic politics, while political parties are gearing up for next year's major polls.

South Korea will elect a new parliament in April and vote on a new president in December of next year. It will be the first time in two decades the two polls will be held in the same year.


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