U.S. cautious after death of Kim Jong-il

Reflects uncertainty about transition in North Korea

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The Obama administration’s cautious response to the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il reflects unease and uncertainty about the leadership transition in the reclusive country that has confounded U.S. presidents since Harry S Truman.

For the past 60 years, the “hermit kingdom” has vexed the United States and its allies with war, nuclear tests, missile launches, belligerence and bellicose bombast.

But since he took office, President Obama has had to deal with the country at perhaps its most secretive point: an unclear succession at the very top at a time of deep concern about the stability of the regime.

Thus, the administration’s carefully worded public messages have underscored the administration’s desire for better relations with the autocratic nation and its concern about the welfare of the North Korean people.

They also are gentle reminders that Washington expects Pyongyang to follow through on denuclearization pledges and improve ties with its neighbors, particularly South Korea.

The kid-gloves treatment accorded to the North’s youthful new leader, Mr. Kim’s twenty-something son Kim Jong-un, has attracted criticism from some who see this as a moment to make a forceful case for dramatic reform and regime change.

But without solid intelligence of the opaque transition process and fearful of misunderstandings that could lead to provocations with the notoriously erratic North, U.S. officials concluded that the best course is to say little, wait and watch.

Indeed, the administration’s initial reactions to Mr. Kim’s death have contained little substance at all and were couched in niceties.

“All I can say is that we’re monitoring the situation closely,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said last week as North Korean state media broadcast pictures of wailing mourners, apparently overcome with grief.

“Kim Jong-il had designated Kim Jong-un as his official successor, and at this time, we have no indication that that has changed.”

Mr. Carney added: “We hope that the new North Korean leadership will take the steps necessary to support peace, prosperity and a better future for the North Korean people, including through acting on its commitments to denuclearization.”

Those comments echoed words from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

More than 16 hours after Mr. Kim’s death was announced, she was the first senior U.S. official to comment publicly on the developments. In intentionally vague comments, she called for “a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea” and expressed hope that it would not affect “regional peace and stability.”

Notably, it was Mrs. Clinton who first stirred the pot about a possible succession crisis in North Korea.

Nearly three years ago, on her first trip to Asia as secretary of state, she stunned diplomatic circles with a frank appraisal of U.S. concerns amid rampant speculation about the health of Kim Jong-il, who had suffered a stroke in 2008, and his choice of a successor.

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