Sympathy? Condolences? South Korea weighs response to Kim Jong-il's death.

Kim Jong-il vowed to turn Seoul into a 'sea of flames.' Not surprisingly, expressions of condolences on his death have been a subject of debate in South Korea. 

Kyodo News/AP
North Korean women cry after learning death of their leader Kim Jong-il on Monday in Pyongyang, North Korea. The South Korean government on Tuesday came out with an expression of 'sympathy' for the North Korean people while refusing to send an official delegation to the funeral of the man whose regime vowed to turn Seoul 'into a sea of flames.'
Wally Santana/AP
Retired South Korean Marines toss posters of Kim Jong-il in the air in a sign of disrespect during a protest a day after his death was announced in front of the Government Complex, Tuesday in Seoul, South Korea.

South Korea is adopting a carefully muted response to the death of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il – a compromise between real condolences and absolute silence.

 It was in that spirit, in the view of analysts here, that the government on Tuesday came out with an expression of “sympathy” for the North Korean people while refusing to send an official delegation to the funeral of the man whose regime vowed to turn this capital “into a sea of flames.”

“The government conveys sympathy to the people of North Korea,” was the curt comment of South Korea’s unification minister, Yu Woo-ik, after a cabinet meeting at which the proper level of grief was believed to be the main topic of discussion.

 “They had problems selecting the right word,” says Choi Jin-wook, senior North Korea analyst at the Korea Institute of National Unification. “Saying nothing at this critical stage would be a problem. We have to say at least something.”

The sensitivity on how to respond to the death of Kim Jong-il reflects the deeper issue of whether it will be possible to reach an accommodation with a new regime whose direction and outlook remains a mystery here. North Korea has been calling Kim Jong-il’s third son, Kim Jong-un, “the great successor” for whom citizens should show “respect” and “loyalty,” but so far he has not been reported to have issued a single public utterance.

It’s partly to shield him from extremely curious foreign eyes in this critical time of transition, in the view of some observers, that no foreign delegations have been invited to North Korea for the funeral on Dec. 28. “They don’t want any rumors,” says Mr. Choi. “Most important is they have to control the situation. They don’t want any kind of foreign influence at this time.”

 At the same time, says Choi, the government fears the presence of foreign leaders, with retinues of assistants and security people, would be difficult to control while the people of the capital are in a paroxysm of universal grief as seen in scenes of weeping and wailing on North Korean television.

 “When foreigners come to Pyongyang,” he observes wryly, “they have to take them to the right restaurant.”

While elevating the image of Kim Jong-un as the new leader, the inner circle surrounding him is believed to be uncertain as to how much authority he is capable of exercising, or how citizens outside the elite of the capital will view him.

The North’s decision “not to welcome foreign delegations”  has people in the South “speculating about instability in the North,” according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, “heightening the uncertainty surrounding the untested heir-apparent.”  The North's leadership “may have not sorted out its internal stance,” as Cha Doo-hyeon of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, was quoted by Yonhap.

Michael Breen, author of a biography of Kim Jong-il who met Kim Jong-il’s father, “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, in April 1994 three months before he died, predicts Kim Jong-un “is going to be a figurehead around which the elite can try to solidify” but “in the longer term, he’s got to put people into play.”

One problem is that Kim Jong-un if anything is as much a mystery to most North Koreans as he is to foreigners.  In order to assert  his leadership, “he’s going to impose more and more control over the people,” says Ha Tae-keung, director of Open Radio for North Korea, which broadcasts into the North for two hours a day from its studio here. Jong-un’s lack of real experience, beyond the high military, party, and government posts thrust upon him in the past 2-1/2 years, only makes matters worse.

“I’m not sure how able he is,” says Mr.Ha. “Without his father, he has to do everything.”

For South Korea, a more immediate problem has been to compromise between leftists calling for condolences and conservatives, notably Korean War veterans, who would prefer saying nothing.

In the spirit of compromise, the government decided to permit the families of two noted advocates of reconciliation to go to the funeral.  These include, most famously, relatives of the late President Kim Dae-jung, who flew to Pyongyang in June 2000 for the first inter-Korean summit with Kim Jong-il and propounded the Sunshine policy of reconciliation.

Interestingly, the government also is permitting the widow and other members of the family of Hyundai executive Chung Mong-hun also to go to Pyongyang. Mr. Chung jumped to his death in August 2003 amid an investigation into huge payoffs through his company, Hyundai Asan, that persuaded Kim Jong-il to agree to the summit.

The widow, Hyun Jeong-eun, succeeded her husband but has suffered bitter problems in operating what was once its leading enterprise, the resort at Mount Kumkang, just north of the line with North Korea overlooking the east coast. South Korea suspended tours to the resort after a female tourist was shot to death by a North Korean guard for wandering outside the tourist area in 2008, and North Korea this year took over the resort.

It was presumably in hopes of regaining the favor of the North Koreans that she sent a condolence message saying, "I sincerely grieve the sudden death of Mr. Kim who played a role in improving inter-Korean relations.” 

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