The Death of Kim Jong Il: Diplomatic Reactions



In an earlier post, we offered a roundup of initial analysis of the course of transition in North Korea. A thoughtful issue of Cankor moved us to do the same with respect to the initial diplomatic reactions to the passing of Kim Jong Il, with a focus on the five other parties to the Six Party Talks.  We remain skeptical that the new order in North Korea looks much different than the old; indeed, we have suggested it may look worse. But as we have learned repeatedly, nothing could be worse than responding to the transition in an overtly provocative way. To the contrary, the appropriate tone would be to express hope for improved relations among all parties on the peninsula and to sustain the momentum toward talks.

Unfortunately, however, it is hard to escape what might be called the history issue: how and whether to respond to the manifest failures and abuses of the regime.

In general, we see three diplomatic approaches: those that express official condolences and effectively support the transition; those that stay quiet about the history question, but draw a distinction between the government and the people; and those that exploit the opportunity to condemn the regime. The major parties appear to have avoided any outright mistakes, with a lot of emphasis on “wait and see.”

The US statement followed the middle-of-the-road course, apparently after a day of fine-tuning. It does not offer condolences, but acknowledges that the country is in a state of mourning and expresses hope both for diplomacy and for the people of North Korea.

For the US, the timing of KJI’s death proved awkward because of news reports from AP that Washington had struck a deal exchanging food aid for progress on the nuclear question; Marc Noland commented on the deal in an earlier post. The US has not backed away from the promise of food aid, but State Department press briefings suggest two things: that the discussions between the North Koreans and Ambassador King and Assistant Deputy Administrator for AID Jon Brause in Beijing still need to be fully digested; and that the administration is taking advantage of the official North Korean mourning period to assess the situation. The briefings suggest that while talks were productive on food, monitoring issues among “other things” still need to be resolved. Nor has any decision been taken with respect to a future round of bilateral talks. But at least the beginning is not blatantly inauspicious.

South Korea also took this middle ground in its official statement. (“On the passing of Chairman Kim Jong Il, the ROK Government expresses its sympathy for the people of North Korea.”). The statement was strange because it was read by Minister of Unification Yu Woo-ik following a ministerial meeting, but included a separate Ministry of Unification statement that the government would not send an official  delegation. Only two private parties would be allowed to attend: the families of the late former President Kim Dae-jung and of the late head of the Hyundai Group, Chung Mong-hun. The Ministry subsequently processed 49 proposals by civic groups to send condolence messages, which also had to pass through the MOU, approving and delivering 27.

The decision to limit private condolence visits was treated as an insufferable snub by the North (“a barbaric act against humanity”) and played into South Korean politics in predictable ways. One incident captures the full spectrum of views. A South Korean progressive organization, Korea Solidarity (former Korean College Student's Association, currently identified as an illegal group under the National Security Act) made a public announcement that one of its representatives, Hwang Hye Ro, had entered North Korea by flying from Paris to Beijing and then to Pyongyang in order to express her condolences. At the organization’s press briefing outside the central government complex at Seoul, the group was confronted by the right-wing Korea Parent Federation and police had to keep them apart. The Prosecutor's Office subsequently announced that Ms. Hwang will be prosecuted under the anachronistic National Security Act.

But despite the condolence perturbation, the South Korean response struck us as muted compared to Kim Young Sam’s bluster in 1994.  The military took a light touch in terms of alerts—a major shortcoming of the KYS response—and the LMB administration made a slight gesture by asking that Christmas trees not be lit along the border during the mourning period. At a meeting with party representatives Lee Myung Bak sent more conciliatory noises. MOFAT press briefings can be found here; less informative MOU briefings here. Again, it could have been worse.

Not surprisingly, Russia (telegram from Medvedev to Kim Jong Un) and particularly China doubled down. The official Chinese statement was extraordinarily officious, coming from a host of Chinese institutions (the Central Committee; National People's Congress Standing Committee; the State Council and the Central Military Commission) to their North Korean counterparts (the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), the Central Military Commission, the National Defense Commission, the Presidium and the Cabinet). Nonetheless, it struck us as completely over the top, even gratuitous, hailing Kim Jong Il as rendering “immortal service to the great undertaking of socialist construction of the DPRK people” and closing with “Eternal glory to Comrade Kim Jong Il!”

Most significant, however, is that the message specifically states the expectation that the country will “closely unite around the Worker's Party of Korea [and] turn their grief into strength under the leadership of comrade Kim Jong Un…” As we have long-argued, the hope that Beijing will lean on Pyongyang is completely misguided; a summary of some recent sparring on the issue among a group of well-informed analysts can be found in our earlier Joe Robert Memorial Ten Rounder. Roger Cavazos offers up a thorough look at the Chinese-language sources that confirms these views over at Nautilus.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba happened to be in Washington on December 19, and—surprise, surprise—did not miss the opportunity to once again raise the abduction issue. (“Due to the most recent developments, we are seeing an increasing level of interest in and attention to how the process of dealing with the abduction issue develops in Japan…” Sigh) Japanese response stressed coordination on the issue, including a proposal for a trilateral dialogue with China and the US.

Finally, the “come out swinging” model was represented by none other than our Canadian friends. Check out the edgy news coverage of the UN General Assembly moment of silence by the Toronto Sun; Canada among other delegations boycotted the moment (which according to my colleague Marc Noland lasted all of 27 seconds).

PM Stephen Harper:

“Kim Jong-il will be remembered as the leader of a totalitarian regime who violated the basic rights of the North Korean people for nearly two decades. We hope his passing brings positive change allowing the people of North Korea to emerge from six decades of isolation, oppression and misery.”

Well, that just about summarizes it. But whether it has any useful diplomatic effect is quite another issue; Cankor covers the controversy over the remarks.

Overall, the response among all of the major parties was both predictable and rightly cautious. The only major disappointment came not in gratuitous confrontation, but in China’s gratuitous embrace. But as we have long argued, that should come as no surprise.

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