WASHINGTON – 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 Barack 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 are also 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, Kim's twenty-something son Kim Jong Un, has attracted criticism from some who see this is 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 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 on Wednesday 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."
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. On Monday, more than 16 hours after 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."
Ironically, it was 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.
"If there is a succession, even if it's a peaceful succession, that creates more uncertainty and it also may encourage behaviors that are even more provocative as a way to consolidate power within the society," Clinton told reporters on her way to South Korea on Feb. 20, 2009.
Her remarks on a previously taboo subject sparked great debate. In Seoul the next day, she expressed surprise at the uproar, noting that reports of Kim choosing his youngest son Kim Jung Un to succeed him had "been in the news for months."
"I don't think that it's a forbidden subject to talk about succession in the hermit kingdom," Clinton said. "In fact, it seems to me it's got to be factored into any policy review that one is undertaking. ... I think it would be irresponsible for it not to be factored into what you were thinking about."
That same month, U.S. diplomats were scrambling to collect any information they could about Kim Jong Un from South Korean, Chinese and Japanese officials and experts, according to leaked State Department cables published by WikiLeaks.
Unfortunately for the Americans, their interlocutors had sharply divided opinions, according to the cables. Some predicted the North Korean regime would collapse politically within two to three years of Kim Jong Il's death. Others foresaw a power struggle between the young and untested Kim Jong Un and rivals in the elite but differed over who would prevail. Others believed there would be little change.
One apparent area of convergence, however, was that most South Korean experts believed the challenge for the younger Kim would come after his father's death.
Thus, as North Korea's transition is under way, the lack of clarity has put U.S. policy on hold.
Before Kim's passing, the administration had been expected this week to announce the resumption in food aid to North Korea and a potential bilateral meeting on nuclear disarmament. Although the State Department said there had been brief exchange with North Korean officials in New York on Monday, both initiatives are now in flux pending the end of the North's mourning period.
The administration says it is respecting that mourning period by understanding that North Korean officials will not be available for discussions. Yet it has steadfastly refused to express any sympathy for the death of Kim, whose Stalinist regime is accused of having one of the worst, if not the worst, human rights records in the world.
While showering the late Czech democracy leader Vaclev Havel with effusive eulogies, American officials have refused to even utter the word "condolence" in relation to Kim.
"With regard to the C-word," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday, "I think we didn't consider it appropriate in this case."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Matthew Lee covers international affairs and U.S. foreign policy for The Associated Press.