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Funeral Diplomacy in Prague and Pyongyang

Published on 23 December 2011
Updated on 19 March 2024

In the span of a few days, there are two important funerals, as different as one can imagine. In Prague, many statesmen will came to pay their last tribute to one of the icons of democracy, Vaclav Havel. In Pyongyang, there won’t be any foreign dignitaries arriving for the funeral of Kim Jong-il – one of the world’s last dictators.. Here, North Korea will break with one venerable practice of funeral diplomacy: that of bringing together even the most feared enemies. Funeral diplomacy, as Berridge wrote, has a function “for foreign friends of the deceased to confirm that the new leadership remains wedded to their relationship and for foreign rivals to explore the possibility of a change of heart”.[1] In some cases, funerals have served as a turning point in diplomatic relations. In April 2010, Russian diplomacy used the death of the Polish president Kaczyński as an occasion to reset relations between Russia and Poland. Every detail was carefully planned, including the subliminal message the attached photo conveys. Unlike many other statesmen, who could not go to the funeral because of the volcanic ash cloud in Europe, President Medvedev attended the funeral in Warsaw. By showing his head next to the airplane engine, the Russian public diplomacy team conveyed the message of Medvedev risking “his head” to attend, and ultimately, attaching high relevance to the funeral and to relations between Russia and Poland. By not inviting foreign leaders even from friendly countries, Pyongyang sent a clear message for “business as usual”.  

[1] “Diplomacy: Theory and Practice” by Geoff Berridge, London: Palgrave Macmillan, Page 180.

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