WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration called for a peaceful and stable leadership transition in North Korea on Monday 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 President George W. Bush once placed on an "axis of evil" enemies list.
President Barack Obama conferred by phone Monday night with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to underscore the U.S. commitment to Japan and other close allies, the White House said in a statement. Obama also conveyed the importance he places on stability in the region, according to the White House. [See a collection of pictures of King Jong-Il.]
Obama spoke Sunday night with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, and the administration also contacted officials in China and Russia following the news of Kim's death, the White House said.
"We are deeply concerned with the well-being of the North Korean people and our thoughts and prayers are with them during these difficult times," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement Monday night. "It is our hope that the new leadership of the DPRK will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by honoring North Korea's commitments, improving relations with its neighbors, and respecting the rights of its people."
Clinton had met earlier in the day with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and told reporters at the State Department that Japan and the U.S. hope for better relations with North Korea.
"We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea as well as ensuring regional peace and stability," she said.
Clinton 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 longstanding 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 it still was the U.S. view that North Korea make good on those commitments. But the department said Kim's passing and 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.
The administration had been expected to decide, possibly as early as Monday, whether to try to re-engage the reclusive country in nuclear negotiations and provide it with food aid. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that decision had been postponed as the administration was now focused on consulting with concerned nations on events in Pyongyang.
Officials have said the U.S. was concerned about any changes 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 Monday 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 the longtime leader's death had not spurred any new concerns about North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons.