WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government got its first warning North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had died from an intelligence unit that monitors media reporting around the world, two U.S. officials said.
The officials said the Open Source Center, a branch of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, first relayed the news to the U.S. government a day or more after Kim actually died.
Despite the time lag, several U.S. officials insisted this was not an intelligence failure in tracking events in isolated and unpredictable North Korea, which is trying to build a nuclear arsenal.
U.S. officials also said the transition of power in Pyongyang appears to be proceeding smoothly despite speculation that the inexperience of Kim Jong-un, the dead leader's youngest son and designated successor, could lead to a struggle among regime insiders.
"We have not seen any unusual North Korean troop movements since the death of Kim Jong-il. That would be one indicator of a less than smooth transition," said George Little, a Pentagon spokesman. "This appears to be a relatively smooth transition on the peninsula and we hope it stays that way."
Two other U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it now appears the first U.S. intelligence reporting about Kim's death did not circulate until at least 24 hours after he died. Some official and unofficial sources said the first reports may not have circulated until 48 hours after his death.
U.S. government reporting on the precise circumstances of Kim's death is still incomplete, officials acknowledged. Most reporting suggests he died while preparing to board or after boarding a train in Pyongyang.
U.S. officials and a European official familiar with recent intelligence reporting on Kim said that as recently as early December official reports suggested his health, which had been precarious since he had a severe stroke in 2008, was improving.
Gordon Chang, author of a book on North Korea, said his information also was that Kim's health had recently been improving. This appeared to be corroborated by recent photographs of Kim and his increasingly arduous travel schedule.
Chang said even though North Korea is an exceptionally difficult target for western intelligence agencies, Kim's death was "one of the more important things" that they ought to have known sooner.
"Of course they failed. They didn't let people know that the guy was dead when he had been dead for 48 hours," Chang said.
Several current U.S. officials, including ones involved in supervising and critiquing the performance of U.S. spy agencies, insisted that although U.S. intelligence staff may have not immediately learned of Kim's death, they had been warning for months that his health had deteriorated and U.S. policymakers should prepare for his demise.
"It would have been an intelligence failure if policymakers were left unprepared to deal with the scenarios that will result from the inevitable death of Kim Jong-il. That didn't happen here," one of the officials said.
"The key point in a situation like this is not marking the exact second the dictator dies - while clearly that would be great to know - but having a solid framework to assess what might come next."
"The present scenario isn't a surprise," the official continued. "We had known Kim Jong-il had an increased risk of a coronary event or other medical emergency for some time now. The fact that he died with little warning is a situation we anticipated and planned for."
The official added that "calling this an intelligence failure displays a misunderstanding of the scope of the challenge and downplays the hard work and expertise of the Americans who work this very hard target."
Additional reporting By Phil Stewart; Editing by John O'Callaghan