Turtle Bay

The United Nations People’s Republic of Protocol

The U.N. flew its flag at half-staff this week for recently departed North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il, honoring the passing of one of the world’s most repressive political leaders and ending an internal debate about whether it was appropriate to do so. When Kim’s death was announced, the U.N. flew its flag half-staff at ...

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

The U.N. flew its flag at half-staff this week for recently departed North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il, honoring the passing of one of the world's most repressive political leaders and ending an internal debate about whether it was appropriate to do so.

When Kim's death was announced, the U.N. flew its flag half-staff at its headquarters in Pyongyang, but not at U.N. headquarters, where the flag is traditionally lowered upon news of the death of a head of state.

U.N. officials in New York debated whether Kim should be granted the honor, since he had never been recognized within his own country as the head of state.

The U.N. flew its flag at half-staff this week for recently departed North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il, honoring the passing of one of the world’s most repressive political leaders and ending an internal debate about whether it was appropriate to do so.

When Kim’s death was announced, the U.N. flew its flag half-staff at its headquarters in Pyongyang, but not at U.N. headquarters, where the flag is traditionally lowered upon news of the death of a head of state.

U.N. officials in New York debated whether Kim should be granted the honor, since he had never been recognized within his own country as the head of state.

That distinction had been reserved for his father Kim Il Sung, who was posthumously named North Korea’s president for eternity following his death on July 8, 1994.  In 1998, North Korea amended its constitution to "hold the great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung in his esteem as the Eternal President of the Republic."

But the U.N., which has been expanding its humanitarian operations this year in North Korea, known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, has been struggling to walk a fine line between avoiding being seen as honoring one of the world’s nastiest regimes while trying not to offend the government as it goes through a delicate succession.

"This case is unique," a senior U.N. official explained to Turtle Bay. "Everything in that country is unique. I can’t think of another country where the head of state is permanently dead."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s office issued a statement offering his condolences to the people of North Korea upon Kim’s death, though not to his government, and vowed continued support for the desperately poor North Korean people.

"The Secretary-General has learned that the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong-il, passed away," read the Dec. 19 statement. "The Secretary-General extends his sympathy to the people of the DPRK at this time of their national mourning."

But on Wednesday, the U.N. relented and agreed to set its flag at half-staff at all of its offices around the world after the North Koreans asked.    

"We were requested by the DPRK mission [to fly the flag at half-staff] on the day of the funeral and as a matter or protocol we did it," Ban’s spokesman Eduardo Del Buey told Turtle Bay. "These decisions are taken in consultation with the members states and when we take a look."

Asked if this meant the United Nations had finally recognized Kim as the country’s head of state, Del Buey said "you have to ask the DPRK mission to tell you who their head of state is and was." I’m still waiting for the answer.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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