While China has traditionally had close ties and has thwarted efforts to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear program, it doesn't have the kind of sway to affect the political situation as much as one might suspect. They're often as much in the dark about the political machinations as everyone else. They're spectators to the death and transition in the regime. China has been keen on keeping the border tightly controlled, because it doesn't want to deal with a potential influx of millions of North Korean refugees streaming across the border. Since that border is far less militarized by the North Koreans, it is often used by those trying to escape the regime to points elsewhere in Asia, including South Korea.
Meanwhile, MSNBC/New York Times wonders whether intel services dropped the ball by not detecting signs of Kim's death.
For South Korean and American intelligence services to have failed to pick up any clues to this momentous development — panicked phone calls between government officials, say, or soldiers massing around Mr. Kim’s train — attests to the secretive nature of North Korea, a country not only at odds with most of the world but also sealed off from it in a way that defies spies or satellites.The fact is that the North Korean regime is so insular that it is nearly impossible to divine its intentions or decision making processes because so little is communicated (telecommunications in general in North Korea is highly limited so there isn't much in the way of chatter that could be intercepted) and human intelligence assets are also constrained by the very nature of the regime.
Asian and American intelligence services have failed before to pick up significant developments in North Korea. Pyongyang built a sprawling plant to enrich uranium that went undetected for about a year and a half until North Korean officials showed it off in late 2010 to an American nuclear scientist. The North also helped build a complete nuclear reactor in Syria without tipping off Western intelligence.
Will younger Kim's aunt, uncle be N. Korea puppet masters?
As the United States and its allies confront a perilous leadership transition in North Korea — a failed state with nuclear weapons — the closed nature of the country will greatly complicate their calculations. With little information about Mr. Kim’s son and successor, Kim Jong-un, and even less insight into the palace intrigue in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, much of their response will necessarily be guesswork.
North Korean leaders want to perpetuate this notion and secretive nature because so much of their power is derived from the inability of others to understand what's going on in the country - including North Koreans who are constrained from knowing anything other than what the regime deems necessary.
Indeed, news of the death was kept from North Koreans for 48 hours, likely to insure the handover of power to Kim's son. There are even questions about what will happen to Jong-il's remains; some question whether he'll be embalmed and put on display next to his father, or buried simply. Considering the cult of personality surrounding the Kim clan, expect the regime to spend whatever it takes to display his remains, even if the impoverished country remains on the verge of famine and can't afford extravagances such as the multimillion dollar costs associated with such displays.
For the moment, his remains are lying in repose in Pyongyang. North Korean media handlers are pushing the propaganda about Jong-un, noting his divine origins in a fashion that mimics the cult of personality established around his father and grandfather.