N Korean negotiator provided voice of reason
It cannot be easy being the top diplomat in a most undiplomatic regime. Paek Nam-sun appeared to have personified that dilemma in nine years as foreign minister of North Korea until his death.
When he emerged on the international stage in 1998, regional expectations were running high. The 'Sunshine Policy' of North's enemy, South Korea, was in its dawn. A United States governed by the pro-engagement forces of president Bill Clinton was also reaching out.
Within two years, Paek had held talks with his South Korean counterpart in the first such meeting in 50 years. He led his hermit state into the annual regional forum of the Asean, meeting US secretary of state Madeline Albright on its fringes. It was the highest-level meeting ever between the two countries, a session topped only by Ms Albright's visit to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong-il soon afterwards.
At the time of his death, announced yesterday, it was a different story. North Korea appears at its most isolated after staging its first nuclear weapons test in October. Its financial networks are under siege, its shipping under unprecedented scrutiny.
It has frustrated even China, its last and most significant patron and donor. Beijing was given just 20 minutes' notice of the weapons test.
Paek, a known believer in negotiation, is widely thought to have played a role in getting Pyongyang back to the table in December to revive the six-nation talks on its nuclear programme. He did, after all, emerge at a time when North Korea was working towards relatively normal international relations.
Other more conservative influences also were at play, however, and the talks ended with no progress. No date has been set for resumption and the region nervously awaits news of a second test.
His own public role highlighted that isolation in recent months. He returned again to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in July, three weeks after the missile tests that presaged the nuclear experiment.
Paek swiftly dashed hopes of any informal multiparty talks on the fringes of the Kuala Lumpur meeting, rejecting the overtures of his mainland counterpart, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing .
Instead, he railed against US financial sanctions. Physically, too, he was a diminished character, his heavy-set frame ferried about the convention venues in a golf cart after years of ill-health.
The attention now shifts to his leading deputy, Kang Sok-ju. Mr Kang has played an increasingly vital role in recent years while Paek remained the figurehead.
Serving as a direct diplomatic aide to Kim Jong-il, Mr Kang can be expected to remain the key player irrespective of whichever regime elder replaces Paek, regional analysts believe.
Diplomatic sources believe Mr Kang has been suffering his own health problems, secretly visiting Moscow recently for treatment.