Uncertainty over condolence messages for N Korea
North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Il’s death is raising tough questions, not only of policy but of protocol, with major world powers divided on whether and how to offer condolences.
The US and other Western nations have studiously avoided the word “condolences” and instead addressed statements to “the North Korean people” after the demise of an absolute dictator blamed for thousands of deaths.
But US allies—South Korea and Japan—which have tense relations with the North and are directly in the crosshairs of the nuclear-armed state, both offered condolences through official statements.
South Korea, which remains technically at war with the North, also said it would allow private groups to offer condolences in the latest effort to try to encourage stability despite deep worries over young successor Kim Jong-Un.
China, North Korea’s main ally, quickly showed its grief and President Hu Jintao paid respects at Pyongyang’s embassy in Beijing. Other nations that said they were sending formal condolence messages included Russia, Iran and India.
‘Path of piece’
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a statement issued after a day of fine-tuning, urged North Korea’s new leadership to embrace “the path of peace” but kept the focus on the country’s people rather than its leadership.
“We are deeply concerned with the well-being of the North Korean people and our thoughts and prayers are with them during these difficult times,” Clinton wrote.
Explaining the statement, state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that it was “intended to be a signal of our expectations and hopes for the new regime”.
“With regard to ‘the c word’, I think we didn’t consider it appropriate in this case,” she added.
The decision comes as the rival Republican Party tries to depict President Barack Obama as apologetic toward US adversaries.
There is historical precedent for controversy. When Kim Il-Sung—Kim Jong-Il’s father and the nation’s founder—died in 1994, then president Bill Clinton offered “sincere condolences to the people of North Korea on behalf of the people of the United States”.
Lost in translation
Clinton, who was speaking to reporters on a visit to Italy, also voiced “deep appreciation” to Kim Il-Sung for supporting talks with the US.
But Republican Senator Bob Dole, who would unsuccessfully challenge Clinton for the White House two years later, accused the Democratic president of forgetting the more than 35 000 Americans killed in the Korean War.
Democratic lawmakers at the time hit back by noting that Republican presidents sent condolences over the deaths of communist strongmen Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.
North Korean state media said on Wednesday that former president Jimmy Carter, a Democrat who has pressed for better relations with Pyongyang, sent his own condolence message to Kim Jong-Un.
The Carter Centre in Atlanta did not return messages seeking comment.
Jack Pritchard, a former US negotiator with North Korea who now heads the Korea Economic Institute, said that Hillary Clinton’s statement was “very well crafted” as it was open to interpretation, with North Korean leaders able to see it as a condolence message if they so choose.
Elaborate personality cult
But Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said there was a risk that North Korea’s leadership would compare the 2011 and 1994 statements.
“The circumstances are completely different. I think it’s justified” not to offer condolences over Kim Jong-Il, Snyder said.
“But at the same time, I think it’s possible that the North Koreans could actually see what they’ve gotten so far as a step short of where they were previously,” he added.
Formal statements are of high importance for the leadership of North Korea, which has developed an elaborate personality cult around the Kim dynasty.
But foreign governments have been spared an additional dilemma as North Korea has indicated that international leaders will not take part in Kim’s December 28 funeral.
Peter Beck, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Pyongyang’s pre-emptive non-invitation showed that the regime will likely be focused on itself and the country instead of scrutinising messages from overseas.
“They really don’t care about the world right now. They care a lot more about their internal situation,” Beck said.—AFP