Kim Jong Il, the secretive son of the late North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, appeared to be moving "more smoothly and more rapidly than expected" Sunday toward an official takeover of the leadership of the Stalinist nation, South Korea's Unification Ministry said.
No signs were seen of a power struggle, nor of any military movements. South Korea had immediately ordered a military alert after Saturday's announcement of Kim's death, but the United States, which maintains 37,000 troops here, did not follow suit.
Both Saturday night and Sunday, North Korean radio broadcasted pledges of loyalty to Kim Jong Il from North Korean officials.
And Radio Pyongyang, monitored by the British Broadcasting Corp., carried the report that security officers had acknowledged Kim Jong Il as their new leader. The younger Kim, who had never served in the army, was named commander of the military only 2 1/2 years ago.
The Unification Ministry's evaluation was given after South Korean officials spent Sunday analyzing reports and studying measures related to Kim's death, an event that leaders here have been predicting for years would herald the first possibility for major change in the northern half of their divided nation.
Although fear of Kim Jong Il, 52, who is blamed here for instigating terrorist attacks against the South, runs high, hope has also emerged for a change for the better. A Gallup Poll found that 41% of the respondents felt that Kim Il Sung's death had lowered the chances of a war; 36% believed chances had increased.
North Korea today notified the South that it would have to postpone what would have been a first-ever meeting between the presidents of the North and South. President Kim Young Sam of South Korea had been scheduled to visit the North Korean capital from July 25 to 27.
In Geneva, U.S. and North Korean officials agreed to a brief postponement of their talks over Pyongyang's nuclear program. They decided that a specific date for resuming the talks will be set after Kim Il Sung's funeral next Sunday. U.S. officials suggested that the talks might start up soon after the funeral, around the last week of July.
Assistant Secretary of State Robert L. Gallucci, the top U.S. negotiator, called the delay "proper, under the circumstances." He said North Korean officials at the Geneva talks assured him that North Korean policies will continue and that the assurances given by Kim Il Sung of a freeze on the nuclear program will remain in place.
Top Clinton Administration officials in Washington took to the Sunday talk shows to assert that the White House plans to be "vigilant" in assessing the new situation in North Korea, while at the same time signaling its willingness to continue talks with Pyongyang.
"Obviously, this is a period of sensitive transition," White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta told the CBS program "Face the Nation." "I think the guideposts for us are to be very cautious and very vigilant but to hope that we can return to the dialogue."
In Pyongyang, thousands of mourners, many of them arriving in groups, fell to their knees, their heads bowed and their hands on the pavement, weeping and sobbing in front of a massive statue of the late "Great Leader." Many left bouquets of flowers around the base of the sculpture.
The scenes were shown on South Korean television, which monitors northern TV, at unprecedented length. Only after South Korea's own dictatorial rule ended in 1987 were North Korean TV clips permitted on the air here--and even then for only one hour a week.
China, meanwhile, added its support. In messages of condolence, its top leaders expressed their "strong belief that the Korean people would carry out the behest of the 'Great Leader' . . . and unite (under) Comrade Kim Jong Il."
All members of the 687-member Supreme People's Congress, which elects the president, and the 145-person Central Committee of the Korean Workers' Party, which picks the party boss, were summoned to Pyongyang for meetings today.
It was not clear, however, whether Kim Jong Il will be elevated to the two top posts immediately. South Korean analysts speculated that Kim might be named successor during the state funeral for the nation's founder and only leader.
Even if Kim Jong Il wins his expected stamp of approval, the changes he might bring to North Korea's policies of militancy and terrorism can only be guessed at.
This includes North Korea's suspected development of nuclear weapons. Some experts believe Kim Jong Il has personally directed the nuclear program.
But Secretary of State Warren Christopher, attending the summit of the major Western democracies in Naples, Italy, suggested Sunday that U.S. officials believe that Kim Jong Il may have played a key role in his country's recent overtures to the United States.
"We think he may have been involved in the decision to start the (U.S.-North Korean) talks in Geneva," Christopher said, "as well as the North-South talks" between Seoul and Pyongyang.
But "we know relatively little about him," Christopher said. "We've not had contact with him, and he's been largely out of the press and out of public appearances in recent years."
Hawaii University Prof. Suh Dae Suk, interviewed by the Joong Ang newspaper, predicted that Kim will establish himself in power, focus on bringing growth back to a declining economy and adopt a more rational and flexible attitude toward better relations and ultimate reunification with the South.
"Kim Jong Il is not as violent and unpredictable as South Koreans generally believe," he said.
Kim Hak Joon, once an adviser to former South Korean President Roh Tae Woo, said that Kim Jong Il is virtually guaranteed two years at the helm of North Korea.
"Even if members of the ruling group have complaints about Kim Jong Il, they will have to rally around him to fill the vacuum created by the death of the 'Great Leader,' " said Kim, now chairman of the board of Dankuk University.
He predicted that Kim Jong Il ultimately will fail and be replaced by an alliance of pragmatic military officers and technocrats, with whom South Korea will be able to cooperate on such issues as economic development.
Times staff writers Jim Mann in Geneva and Art Pine in Washington contributed to this report.