North Korean leader Kim Jong Il dead

Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s leader since 1994, died Dec. 18, Korean state television reported this morning, Korean time.

The ruling Workers Party of Korea hailed Kim’s son, Kim Jong Un, as “the great successor to the revolutionary cause,” seeming to signal that he would take his father’s place. Kim Jong Il himself assumed power in 1994 after the passing of of his father, Kim Il Sung.

Kim Jong Un was the first listed in the announcement of the 232-member funeral commission set up to deal with the formalities of Kim’s passing.

Given the charged geopolitics of the region, it is unclear what Kim’s passing means for North Korea’s neighbors, as well as the United States, which has been involved in the region since the Korean War.

According to the White House, “President Obama spoke with [South] Korea President Lee Myung-bak to discuss the situation on the Korean Peninsula.”

South Korea placed its military and all government officials on high alert following the announcement from the north, according to its official Yonhap News Agency.

Kim’s death came on the eve of a flurry of diplomatic activities in the region, especially a planned bilateral meeting between the U.S. and North Korea in Beijing. There, according to a South Korean official quoted by Yonhap, the North was expected to announce that it would put a moratorium on its uranium enrichment program and allow UN inspectors into the country, in exchange for food aid.

That concession would have paved the way for a resumption in the long stalled six-party talks aimed at resolving the Korean nuclear issue.

The future of the talks now are uncertain.

Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor and former U.S. ambassador to the UN warned that “the situation could become very volatile” in and around the North.

Meanwhile, countries in the region, including China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia called for calm and restraint on behalf of all parties in the region.

Kim’s funeral is set for December 28. A 10-day mourning period has been declared.

Photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il waves goodbye to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, after a meeting Aug. 24 in Buryatia, in eastern Siberia. The meeting focused on energy deals, economic aid and nuclear disarmament. (Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti/AP)