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Sympathy note carefully crafted

Dec 22,2011
The statement South Korea released Tuesday about the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was painstakingly formulated because the Lee Myung-bak administration hopes to use the change in leadership as an opportunity to reset, or redefine, inter-Korean relations.

After the North announced Monday that Kim had died of a heart attack on Saturday, the Lee administration waited until Tuesday to issue a statement following a ministerial meeting on foreign affairs and security. Its statement took longer to use than the U.S. State Department’s.

According to sources at the Blue House, presidential aides including Senior Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Security Chun Yung-woo recommended Lee use Kim’s death as an opportunity for the South to reset inter-Korean relations. Since Lee took office, inter-Korean ties have been frozen, and military tensions between the two Koreas have escalated in recent years.

According to Blue House officials, Chun, former head of the six-party nuclear disarmament talks and a known critic of the North, was particularly vocal that the South must send a message to console the North to prevent the hardliners of Pyongyang from gaining in influence.

Lee reportedly agreed that there was opportunity in the aftermath of Kim’s death. Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik and Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan also agreed, sources said.

“The tone of the government statement was almost decided after the first National Security Council meeting on Monday,” a Blue House official said. “But we gave it another day because we wanted to check the responses of the neighbors.”

The Korean-language statement was announced by Unification Minister Yu, and the Blue House later provided an English translation. “Concerning the death of Chairman Kim Jong-il, the South Korean government expresses its sympathy to the people of North Korea,” it said.

In the broader South Korean society there was the traditional divide between pro-North Korea, antigovernment liberals and pro-government, anti-Pyongyang conservatives on the issue of condolences and delegations going to Kim’s funeral. But the Lee administration tried for a delicate balance in its statement. The word “condolences” was not used, being considered more respectful and government-to-government, and the message was addressed to the North Korean people, not the Pyongyang regime. A similar choice was made in the Korean word used, which was wiro. Condolences would translate as joui.

The Lee administration decided not to send an official delegation to Kim’s funeral, but allowed the families of the late President Kim Dae-jung and the late Hyundai Group Chairman Chung Mong-hun to attend “in return for the North’s dispatch of delegations to their funerals held in the South,” the statement said.

“The government hopes North Korea will soon restore stability so that both Koreas will be able to work together for the sake of peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula,” the statement also said, a message to the North’s new leadership headed by Kim’s youngest son, Jong-un.

Seoul’s message also was in line with the positions of Beijing, Washington, Tokyo and Moscow. “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,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement Monday.

“They all want a soft landing for the North,” a government official said. “The fundamental principle is to avoid provoking the North while keeping the situation stable.”

The official said the statement was aimed at leaving the door open to all possibilities of improving inter-Korean relations. “We left the door open so the North can also see an opportunity,” he said.

The North, however, didn’t react to the messages from South Korea or the United States as of yesterday. Its state media reported about other countries’ messages.


By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]