Kim Jong-il's death: the world responds

How global leaders have responded to the death of the North Korean dictator at the age of 69.

The Kim is dead, long live the Kim. No sooner had the death of Kim Jong-il ("the dear leader") from a heart attack been announced than his son, Kim Jong-un ("the great successor"), had been anointed as the next leader of the world's only hereditary communist dictatorship. "At the leadership of comrade Kim Jong-un, we have to change sadness to strength and courage and overcome today's difficulties," declared the country's authorities.

Kim Jong-il, who, like Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, died at the age of 69 (an age that is to dictators what 27 is to rock stars) will be remembered as yet another tyrant toppled in this year of revolt. "I'd like to think God let Havel and Hitchens pick the third" is the best line currently doing the rounds. (The video below shows the moment North Koreans were told of his death on state television.) Analysts are suggesting that his son's reign could either lead to greater repression or greater reform and emphasising that he may yet fall victim to an internal power struggle.

We'll have more reaction to Kim's death later but, for now, here is how the world's leaders have responded.

Spokesman for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak

President Lee urged the public to go about their usual economic activities without turbulence.

The two leaders (President Lee Myung-bak and President Barack Obama) agreed to closely co-operate and monitor the situation together.

Ma Zhaoxu, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry

We were distressed to learn of the unfortunate passing of Comrade Kim Jong-il, the senior-most leader of DPRK [North Korea].

We express our deep sorrow, and extend our most sincere condolences to the people of DPRK.

Comrade Kim Jong-il was a great leader to the people of DPRK, a close friend to the people of China, and he made an important contribution to the development of socialism in DPRK, as well as co-operation and friendship between the two countries.

We believe that people in DPRK can turn their grief into the power to move on, and continue to promote socialism in DPRK in unity.

China and DPRK will continue to work together, to consolidate and develop the traditional friendship between the two parties, the two countries, and the two peoples, as well as contributing positively to peace and stability in the Korean peninsular and in the region.

Jay Carney, White House spokesman

We are closely monitoring reports that Kim Jong-il is dead. The President has been notified, and we are in close touch with our allies in South Korea and Japan.

We remain committed to stability on the Korean peninsula, and to the freedom and security of our allies.

William Hague, British Foreign Secretary

The people of North Korea are in official mourning after the death of Kim Jong Il. We understand this is a difficult time for them.

This could be a turning point for North Korea. We hope that their new leadership will recognise that engagement with the international community offers the best prospect of improving the lives of ordinary North Korean people.

We encourage North Korea to work for peace and security in the region and take the steps necessary to allow the resumption of the Six Party Talks on denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

Osamu Fujimura, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary

We would hope that this sudden development would not have ill effects on peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.

We were given orders to closely exchange information with the concerned nations of US, South Korea and China, and take all measures needed to prepare for the unexpected.

Kevin Rudd, Australian Foreign Minister

Two critical points need to be emphasised at this important time.

The first is that all governments, including the government of North Korea, should at this time be exercising maximum calm and restraint both in terms of what they do and in their diplomatic signalling.

It is at times like this that we cannot afford to have any wrong or ambiguous signalling.

This time also presents an important opportunity to the new North Korean leadership to engage fully with the international community on how to improve their economy in order to properly feed their people and critically on how to deal with the outstanding problem of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.

The political succession in North Korea is uncertain. It will be difficult to read in the immediate days ahead precisely what will transpire in terms of the future of the North Korean leadership.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder