Striking good-riddance tone, Prime Minister Harper calls for change in North Korea

[by Campbell Clark, Ottawa— Globe and Mail Update. Posted on Monday, 19 December 2011.]

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Photo by Globe & Mail)

Stephen Harper is marking the death of North Korea’s dictator with no condolence and a call for change. But most of the world is hoping the country makes no sudden moves.

The passing of Kim Jong-il, who ruled the nation for two decades with repressive authoritarianism, has raised fears that a regime in transition will strike out at its neighbour, South Korea. Pyongyang added an extra shot of nerves to its history as an unpredictable actor when it conducted a short-range missile test right after the dictator’s death.

In Canada, the Prime Minister acknowledged the death of a dictator with a unconcealed undertone of good riddance.

“Kim Jong-il will be remembered as the leader of a totalitarian regime who violated the basic rights of the North Korean people for nearly two decades,” Mr. Harper said in a statement. “We hope his passing brings positive change allowing the people of North Korea to emerge from six decades of isolation, oppression and misery.”

Mr. Harper’s Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, said in a statement that Ottawa would “note” the death. “Canada remains committed to a secure Korean peninsula and a peaceful, prosperous broader region; we will work with our allies to those ends,” he said.

Security is the first priority for most nations, though Canada and other Western nations have no direct influence on isolated Pyongyang. Mr. Baird’s mention of peninsula security is a signal of support for South Korea. Others made direct appeals for calm.

“Right now we’re at one of those critical junctures in post-1950 military history where we need to ensure that calm and restraint are exercised at an exceptionally difficult period of transition,” Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said.

Kim Jong-il’s 29-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, is the official successor, but Western nations cannot be assured he will take power smoothly. Despite expressing hope for change in a regime that impoverished and oppressed its people, concerns a regime in transition will foster insecurity are immediate.

Under Kim Jong-il, and notably in his last days, the regime seemed to work to undermine security with military plans and erratic moves.

Its nuclear-weapons program sparked fears from South Korea and Western nations, but its willingness to talk often did not prevent new efforts, sparking some analysts to see it as a means to negotiate concessions on aid and sanctions. But the line between provocation and inexplicable action has sometimes baffled analysts.

Last year, North Korea attacked a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, but denied it; an international investigation pegged the blame on Pyongyang. In November, North Korea shelled civilians on Yeonpyeong island – an attack viewed by some analysts as sabre-rattling by a regime already in transition, and by others as inexplicable.

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