U.S. treads carefully, says still open to N.Korea nuclear talks

WASHINGTON Mon Dec 19, 2011 5:28pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States offered the prospect on Monday of renewed engagement with North Korea if it takes steps toward denuclearization, but American officials expect little movement as the isolated state embarks on a period of mourning after the death of leader Kim Jong-il.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration would judge North Korea's new leadership -- now apparently headed by Kim's youngest son Kim Jong-un -- based on how it handles itself, particularly on the nuclear issue.

"We have consistently demonstrated that we are open to engagement with North Korea, but we've also made clear that the North Koreans need to take steps towards denuclearization that would demonstrate seriousness of purpose and a willingness to negotiate," Carney told a news briefing.

"Demonstrating that willingness would then open the door to renewed six-party talks and to improved relations with the United States and with North Korea's neighbors."

Top White House and State Department officials chose their words carefully, underlying the delicate situation on the Korean peninsula, where Kim's death has ushered in uncertainty and jangled nerves.

U.S. officials, while not offering formal condolences on Kim's demise, nonetheless said they would respect the mourning period now under way in the hermetic country.

"We reiterate our hope for improved relations with the people of North Korea and remain deeply concerned about their well-being," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Clinton spoke after meeting with visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, who said Washington, Tokyo and Seoul all agreed on the need to maintain stability and repeated a call on Pyongyang to take "concrete action" to show it is interested in denuclearization.

"We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea," Clinton said.

Clinton said Washington had reached out to both Beijing and Moscow following Kim's death on Monday as part of its effort to coordinate with partners in the six-party nuclear talks which have been frozen since breaking down in 2008.

LOOKING FOR 'CONCRETE ACTIONS'

Gemba said that the United States, Japan and South Korea all agreed that North Korea needs to take "concrete actions" to show it is still willing to address concerns over its nuclear program.

Carney said the United States believed that Kim Jong-un's succession plan had been in place for a considerable period of time, and that Washington saw no particular new concerns created by the power hand-off.

"I don't think we have any additional concerns beyond the ones that we have long had with North Korea's approach to nuclear issues. And we will continue to press them to meet their international obligations," he said.

Clinton was briefed by the Obama administration's special envoy on North Korea, Glyn Davies, following his recent trip to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing to discuss prospects for resuming the nuclear negotiations.

The six-way talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia broke down in 2008, and United Nations inspectors were expelled from North Korea in 2009.

Despite repeated efforts, there has been little sign of progress since then, and Nuland said the United States did not anticipate any quick changes as Pyongyang grapples with the mechanics of a dynastic succession.

"Right now the North Koreans are themselves going to go into a period of national mourning," Nuland said.

"We need to see where they are and where they go as they move through their transition period," she said. "We want to be respectful of the North Korean period of mourning. We will obviously need to re-engage at the right moment."

U.S. and North Korean officials have met twice in recent months regarding an eventual return to talks on ending Pyongyang's atomic programs.

The meetings, despite no immediate breakthrough, marked the end of a period of acute tensions last year when Seoul accused Pyongyang of sinking one of its ships and shelling one of its islands.

American officials also met last week with North Korean officials to discuss the possibility of resuming U.S. food aid to the country, where economic mismanagement and chronic food shortages have left millions hungry.

The United States and South Korea suspended the last round of food aid to North Korea in 2008-2009 amid a dispute over monitoring and fears that some of the aid was being diverted to feed Pyongyang's military forces.

Nuland said the two sides had "good discussions" last week on the issue of monitoring, but underscored that the United States had taken no decision on any resumption of food aid or on scheduling another round of bilateral talks on the nuclear issue.

(Reporting By Andrew Quinn; additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Laura MacInnes. Editing by Christopher Wilson)