NPR logo N Korea Reactions Show Differences Between Governing, Campaigning

N Korea Reactions Show Differences Between Governing, Campaigning

North Koreans mourn the late dictator, Kim Jong Il after Kim Jong Il's death was announced Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. Anonymous/AP hide caption

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North Koreans mourn the late dictator, Kim Jong Il after Kim Jong Il's death was announced Monday, Dec. 19, 2011.


The guarded reaction of the Obama Administration to news of the death of Kim Jung Il, the North Korean dictator, compared with the less diplomatic language of the Republican presidential candidates Monday underscored the differences between governing and campaigning. Candidates for the Oval Office often have a freedom that presidents don't.

Given that uncertainties surrounding North Korea during even the best of times, the Obama administration was studiously measured in its reaction to the report that the long-ill ruler of the secretive regime had died.

Asked Monday about North Korea at his daily briefing of journalists, White House press secretary Jay Carney clearly chose his words carefully.

In a response to a reporter's question, Carney said:

"... The United States is closely monitoring events in the aftermath of Kim Jong Il's death. Our focus is on coordinating closely with our allies and partners. We have reaffirmed our unwavering commitment to the stability of the Korean Peninsula and the security of our allies South Korea and Japan....

REPORTER: So as to concerns about the nuclear stability right now?

MR. CARNEY: I don't think we have any additional concerns beyond the ones that we have long had with North Korea's approach to nuclear issues. And we will continue to press them to meet their international obligations. But I — we have no new concerns as a result of this event.

REPORTER: And based on what you're hearing so far, I mean, clearly there is a transition now. Is this the time — is this an opening, from the White House's perspective, for better days?

MR. CARNEY: I think it's much too early to make any kind of judgment like that. This is a period where North Korea is in a period of national mourning. And 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, as I say, acting on its commitment to denuclearization.

Given North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons and the estimated 13,000 artillery pieces not to mention the missiles the Hermit Kingdom has aimed at Seoul, the administration clearly didn't want to do or say anything that might add to any already existing instability in North Korea arising from the dictator's death.

It avoided, at least publicly, any negative comments about the late dictator.

By contrast, some Republican candidates used the Kim's death to signal their foreign policy toughness, using strong terms to describe the dead dictator.

Here's Mitt Romney:

"Kim Jong-il was a ruthless tyrant who lived a life of luxury while the North Korean people starved. He recklessly pursued nuclear weapons, sold nuclear and missile technology to other rogue regimes, and committed acts of military aggression against our ally South Korea. He will not be missed. His death represents an opportunity for America to work with our friends to turn North Korea off the treacherous course it is on and ensure security in the region. America must show leadership at this time. The North Korean people are suffering through a long and brutal national nightmare. I hope the death of Kim Jong-il hastens its end."

Since one argument Romney makes for his candidacy is that he's a leader and Obama isn't, the call for American leadership ties into that campaign theme.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry sounded very much like Romney:

"The death of vicious dictator Kim Jong Il provides some cause for hope but does not automatically end the reign of inhumane tyranny he and his father constructed. Twenty-three million people still live under North Korea's isolationist, inhumane and tyrannical policies. North Korea remains a nuclear power, and there is a great threat that those weapons might fall into the wrong hands if civil war breaks out.

"At the same time, Kim Jong Il's death is an opportunity to reunify the peninsula if the situation is handled effectively. Kim Jong Un is an unknown quantity, and may not be able to maintain power. The United States must now strongly reaffirm our commitment to our Asian allies, particularly South Korea, and maintain a strong military, diplomatic, and economic presence in the Pacific region during this period. We should also engage with China, and encourage Beijing to work towards a peaceful transition from a grim dictatorship to a free Korea."