As North Korea began an 11-day period of mourning for its late leader, Kim Jong-il, whose death at the weekend was announced on Monday, its neighbours and the United States continued yesterday to tread a cautious line between condolence and containment with some gentle coaxing on the need for regional stability.
After pondering options for 24 hours, South Korea decided not to send an official delegation to Pyongyang to pay respects but did voice condolence.
In a statement issued in Washington, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made no direct mention of Kim's passing but said the US hopes to see a "peaceful and stable transition".
The US response found echoes in China, which, like South Korea, is anxious that the ascent of the heir-apparent, Kim Jong-un, does not usher in a period of unpredictability either as a result of political rivalries emerging in Pyongyang or because the new leader tries to flex some unwelcome diplomatic muscle on the world stage.
President Hu Jintao yesterday offered China's formal condolences in an early morning visit to the North Korean embassy compound in Beijing. Mr Hu was keen to assure its communist ally, which largely subsists on Chinese oil and food handouts, of its strong support amid an uncertain leadership transition, and the Chinese government later said that the "Great Successor", the young and inexperienced Kim Jong-un, would be welcome to visit China.
Beijing's official message of condolence was heavy on the Marxist-Leninist acronyms, reinforcing the close ideological links between China and North Korea. The flag flew at half-mast in the embassy compound. The Chinese state broadcaster showed a sombre Mr Hu bowing in mourning. He was accompanied by Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is tipped to replace him at the helm of the Communist Party next year.
"We are confident that the people of North Korea will carry on the task bequeathed by Comrade Kim Jong-il, and closely unify around the Korean Workers' Party, and under Comrade Kim Jong-un turn their anguish into strength," Mr Hu said in his condolence remarks.
"Co-operative relations between China and North Korea are the immutable and unwavering guiding policy of China's party and government."
The dynastic passing of power may be untimely for the US which had hopes of bringing Pyongyang back to the table for six-party talks on its nuclear weapons ambitions. Washington had recently signalled its willingness to resume shipments of humanitarian aid to the country if it undertook to end its uranium enrichment activities. That progress is now at risk with little known about what stance Kim Jong-un will take to the outside world.
"The sudden death of Kim Jong-il has plunged the isolated state of North Korea into a period of major uncertainty. There are real concerns that heir-apparent Kim Jong-un has not had sufficient time to form the necessary alliances in the country to consolidate his future as leader of the country," said Sarah McDowall, of IHS, a global affairs consultancy in Colorado.
Politicians were eager to stick to a more diplomatic assessment of the current situation, however. "It is our hope that the new leadership will choose to guide their nation on to the path of peace by honouring North Korea's commitments, improving relations with its neighbours, and respecting the rights of its people," Mrs Clinton said in a statement.
"The United States stands ready to help the North Korean people and urges the new leadership to work with the international community to usher in a new era of peace, prosperity and lasting security on the Korean peninsula."
As Mr Hu was paying his respects, there was a flurry of diplomatic activity in Beijing. China's Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, spoke with his South Korean counterpart Kim Sung-Hwan, as well as with Mrs Clinton, amid concerns that Kim Jong-il's death could lead to a vacuum. At a parking spot nearby, a group of North Koreans, wearing black suits and sporting their national flag on their lapels, got out of their car, their faces puffy with grief and their eyes red from crying.
- More about:
- Democrats (US)
- Department Of Foreign Affairs
- Hillary Clinton
- South Korea