The Obama administration called for a peaceful and stable leadership transition in North Korea yesterday, but made few demands on a nuclear-armed nation known for its unpredictability, poverty and hostility to the United States.
Prospects for new nuclear disarmament talks involving North Korea and the United States appeared to dim with the unexpectedly sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and uncertainty surrounding the planned succession to his politically untested son. Top Obama administration national-security officials are focusing intelligence and other assets on the opaque internal politics of the reclusive communist nation that former President George W. Bush once placed on an "axis of evil" enemies list.
"We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea as well as ensuring regional peace and stability," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters at the State Department after a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba.
"We reiterate our hope for improved relations with the people of North Korea and remain deeply concerned about their well-being," she said.
The United States is still looking for better relations with the North Korean people despite the "evolving situation," Clinton said.
She did not say how Kim's death would affect the U.S. approach to his country.
Nor did she make any demands on the new leadership, passing up the opportunity to reiterate U.S. calls for North Korea to follow through on previous nuclear disarmament pledges. The omission of what has been a standard element of any U.S. officials' comments on North Korea appeared to underscore Washington's concern about the situation.
The State Department later said that it still was the U.S. view that North Korea make good on those commitments. But the department said that Kim's passing and the assumption of power of his son, Kim Jong Un, would delay anticipated developments on resuming nuclear disarmament talks with the North and supplying the nation with food aid.
The United States had been quietly pursuing a new diplomatic opening with North Korea, including hopes for new nuclear talks as soon as next week. That opening now appears on hold, while U.S. officials warily assess whether Kim Jong Un can seize his father's mantle.
Officials have said that the U.S. was concerned about any changes that Kim's death might spark in the military postures of North and South Korea, but were hopeful that calm would prevail, despite the test of a short-range missile by the North just hours after the announcement of Kim's death.
The White House said yesterday that it was too early to make any judgments about whether Kim Jong Il's death would provide an opening for better U.S. relations with North Korea.
And spokesman Jay Carney said that the longtime leader's death had not spurred any new concerns about North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons.
"We will continue to press them to meet their international obligations," he said. "But we have no new concerns as a result of this event."
Carney declined to make any assessment of the younger Kim. "We will judge the North Korean government as we always have: by its actions," he said.
The administration had been poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea this week, the first concrete accomplishment after months of behind-the-scenes diplomatic contacts between the two wartime enemies, according to those close to the negotiations.