On North Korea, caution is better than rash words

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Perhaps there has been nothing more baffling to American eyes than the photographs of hordes of obviously grief-stricken North Koreans mourning the death of their 69-year-old dictator, Kim Jong Il. Under his reign and that of his father, the people of the globe's most closed society have remained mired in repression and poverty for 63 years.

The genuine remorse, akin to what customarily is reserved for the passing of close personal family members, demonstrated the uncommon hold the departed leader had over his people. Even if it can be explained or rationalized as the product of intense indoctrination or brainwashing of a whole society, it is remarkable nonetheless.


Our inability to comprehend this phenomenon underscores our difficulty as a nation to cope with the political, diplomatic and military challenges posed by this nuclear-armed menace, and the uncertain direction on which it will embark under uncertain leadership.

Little is known in the West about Kim Jong Un, the babyfaced son of the dead dictator, said to be in his late 20s and already dubbed the "Great Successor." Whether he actually will be in charge or will be under the wing of an elder family member close to his father can only be speculated upon now.


For the Obama administration, it is a time for restraint that is respectful of our own limited knowledge, not only of the workings of the regime Kim Jong Il left behind but of the people of North Korea so evidently in the grip of that regime. President Barack Obama's first response was to quietly contact President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea to reassure him of the U.S. commitment to its longtime ally.

By contrast, two of the Republican presidential hopefuls for 2012, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, jumped in with gratuitous comments. Mr. Romney suggested that the death of the North Korean leader represents an opportunity to work with allies "to turn North Korea off the treacherous course it is on and ensure security in the region." Mr. Perry, with customary obtuseness, was quoted as saying his passing provided the United States with a chance to "reunify the peninsula."

Talk of reunification of the two Koreas is fanciful, reinforcing the spreading notion that Texan provincial Mr. Perry is totally out of his league. The existence of a thriving South Korea, with its skyscraper-modern capital of Seoul, bordering on one of the world's most impoverished, backward and repressive states, mocks the notion.

The new development in North Korea underscores the work still ahead for American intelligence and diplomacy in cracking the enigma of this remaining Communist outpost, and the need for much greater comprehension of the cultural underpinnings of foreign countries with which we deal.

The United States is only now extricating itself from a nearly decade-long involvement in Iraq, into which we stumbled with little true comprehension of the cultural and tribal complexities of its society. The same can be said of Afghanistan, where the American military engagement was justified in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but, as in Iraq, expanded into an undertaking in nation building or preservation.

In terms of American domestic politics, the sudden refocus on the Korean peninsula, and the comments of a pair of Republican White House aspirants, can only reinforce the upper hand held by Mr. Obama in a field in which his presidency has given him strong credentials he lacked as a candidate in 2008.

Beyond the killing of Osama bin Laden, he can point to the pullout from Iraq, his limited participation in the ousting of Moammar Gadhafi and the winding down of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. All of these have muffled earlier Republican allegations that he was ill prepared to conduct American foreign policy.

The obvious imperative of taking a wait-and-see posture toward the news from North Korea dovetails with Mr. Obama's cautious personality and leadership style. Any further kibitzing on the matter by the Republicans competing for his job will be committed at their own political peril.


Of the seven surviving GOP contenders, only former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has any real foreign-policy credentials. Unless you include all-knowing Newt Gingrich, who can always be relied on to step in where wise men fear to tread.

Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is