No one is demanding that President Obama take a stand and declare that it is time for Pyongyang’s ruling elite to step down. Instead, the administration and the rest of the world appear to be in a holding pattern until further word — or action — emerges from North Korea after a mourning period that could last weeks or even months.
“It is scary how little we really know,” said one administration official who closely follows the region and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. “I don’t think you can overstate the concern.”
Officials said they were confident that Kim’s son and anointed heir, Kim Jong Eun, would take over. But they were less sure of his ability to “manage the military and elites who keep the Kim family in power,” another U.S. official said.
Some Republican presidential candidates seized on the death of Kim Jong Il to criticize the administration’s approach and to tout their own plans for dealing with North Korea, although they did not offer specifics.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said in a statement that Kim’s 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.” He said the United States “must show leadership.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry emphasized both the increased security threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons and what he said was an unrivaled opportunity to “reunify the peninsula” now that Kim is gone.
With a near-total blackout of information from inside North Korea, the Obama administration was attempting to coordinate its response as closely as possible with Asian allies and partners and to calm a jittery South Korea.
Obama made a midnight call to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Sunday to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to stability on the Korean Peninsula “and the security of our close ally” in Seoul.
“The two leaders agreed to stay in close touch as the situation develops,” a White House statement said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon each contacted their South Korean counterparts on Monday to “synchronize watches” and reaffirm U.S. support, a senior administration official said.
Clinton held an emergency meeting with Glyn Davies, the administration’s special representative for North Korea policy. Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, in Washington on a previously scheduled visit, also met with Clinton at the State Department.