from Asia Unbound

Kim Jong-il in Death as in Life: Sowing Divisions in South Korea

December 19, 2011

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A tearful announcer dressed in black announces the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on North Korean State Television in this still image from video December 19, 2011
A tearful announcer dressed in black announces the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on North Korean State Television in this still image from video December 19, 2011 (KRT/Courtesy Reuters).

A North Korean announcer delivered the news in a quavering voice that Kim Jong-il had died, triggering official reactions across the region. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman stated that “we are shocked to learn that the top leader of the DPRK, comrade Kim Jong-il, passed away and we hereby express our deep condolences on his passing.” Japan’s government spokesman also stated that “we express our condolences upon receiving the announcement of the sudden passing of Kim Jong-il, the chairman of the national defence committee of North Korea.”

South Korea placed its defence forces on high alert in response to the news and convened an emergency meeting of its National Security Council to discuss countermeasures following the North Korean announcement, but there was no decision on whether to express official government condolences on the death of Kim Jong-il.

The handling of the condolence issue is a particularly divisive one in South Korea, given that Kim Jong-il bears responsibility for the loss of South Korean lives following the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in March and November of last year. Lee Myung-bak most likely has no great desire to offer condolences, given these circumstances. But a further negative turn in inter-Korean relations will have negative ramifications for a ruling party that is already in the process of imploding in advance of April 2012 ROK National Assembly elections.

Although North Korea has declared that foreigners will not be invited to the funeral ceremonies, it is possible that some South Koreans, including former government officials from past administrations who have had personal interactions with Kim, will seek to express their condolences. A North Korean official delegation attended the funeral of former President Kim Dae-jung in August of 2009, and also met with President Lee Myung-bak. This will further complicate South Korean efforts to strike the right balance at the outset of a still murky North Korean political transition.

In 1994, then-president Kim Young-sam’s refusal to offer condolences on the death of Kim Il-sung set off an emotional North Korean reaction and resulted in a cooling of inter-Korean ties for the rest of his term. Kim Young-sam’s refusal to offer condolences also contrasted with the decision of the Clinton administration to offer condolences, having just begun the first day of nuclear negotiations with North Korean counterparts in Geneva.  The Obama administration faces its own decision about how to leave the door open for North Korea to choose a new path while not affirming North Korea’s past leadership.

North Korea’s announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death itself generated immediate criticisms in Seoul over why intelligence authorities apparently had not known in advance the content of the announcement, despite the fact that over two days had passed since Kim Jong-il had suffered his massive heart attack. The North Korean media’s release on Saturday of reports from Kim Jong-il’s visit to a newly refurbished department store in Pyongang apparently served to obscure the news, but will not dampen the reverberations from another intelligence failure in South Korea. It is doubtful that the Chinese or the Americans did any better.