WASHINGTON — The Obama administration called for a peaceful and stable leadership transition in North Korea on Tuesday after the death of the reclusive nation's leader Kim Jong Il.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States is still looking for better relations with the North Korean people despite the "evolving situation" there and on the rest of the Korean peninsula. She did not mention if or how Kim's death or the "evolving situation" on the peninsula would affect the U.S. approach to his country.
However, U.S. officials have said Kim's passing and assumption of power of his son, Kim Jong Un, will likely delay anticipated developments on resuming nuclear disarmament talks with the North and supplying the nation with food aid.
"We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea as well as ensuring regional peace and stability," Clinton told reporters at the State Department after a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Kemba. "We reiterate our hope for improved relations with the people of North Korea and remain deeply concerned about their well-being."
Kemba said the U.S. and Japan "shared the recognition that it is important to make sure that the latest events would not negatively affect the peace and stability on the Korean peninsula."
Neither Clinton nor Kemba took questions from reporters.
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, U.S. officials said Sunday. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, said Kim's death would likely delay the effort.
The officials 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 calm would prevail, despite the test of a short-range missile by the North just hours after the announcement of Kim's death.
The top U.S. military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, told reporters in Germany the United States and its allies had not seen any change "in North Korean behavior of a nature that would alarm us," according to the American Forces Press Service. The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman said there had been no changes to the alert readiness for U.S. forces on the peninsula although South Korea has put its military and police on alert.
The White House said it was in constant contact with allies South Korea and Japan, but it offered no substantive comment on the implications of Kim's death. President Barack Obama spoke with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at midnight and the two leaders agreed to stay in close touch.
"The president reaffirmed the United States' strong commitment to the stability of the Korean peninsula and the security of our close ally, the Republic of Korea," the White House said in a statement early Monday.
Obama and Clinton were both briefed on Kim's death, the White House and State Department said.
Kim's death was announced by state media in a "special broadcast" from Pyongyang late Sunday. The report said Kim died of a heart attack on a train due to a "great mental and physical strain" on Dec. 17 during a "high intensity field inspection." North Korea will hold a national mourning period until Dec. 29. Kim's funeral will be held on Dec. 28, it said.
The U.S. officials stressed that North Korea's past behavior has been notoriously erratic, making predictions about its intentions difficult. However, they said they believed there would not be significant changes in North Korean policies under Kim's son and heir apparent Kim Jong Un until at least after the mourning period ends.
Kim's death came as the Obama administration was debating whether to go ahead with a new round of nuclear disarmament talks with the North and whether to provide food aid to the country, which has been struggling with crippling food shortages.
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 sources close to the negotiations. And, an agreement by North Korea to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program was expected to follow within days, the sources said.
Suspension of uranium enrichment by North Korea had been a key outstanding demand from both the U.S. and South Korea of the North, which has tested two atomic devices in the past five years. Recent food talks in Beijing yielded a breakthrough on uranium enrichment, the sources said.
The food aid announcement, which could have come as early as Monday, would have not only been welcome news for North Korea, but also pave the way for a crucial U.S.-North Korea meeting in Beijing on Thursday. That meeting in turn could lead to the resumption of nuclear disarmament talks that would also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
The so-called six-party talks were last held three years ago, and resuming them would amount to a foreign policy coup for the Obama administration.
Two senior U.S. diplomats were in North Korea's lone ally China last week to discuss the issues. They were due to meet Obama's top national security aides on Monday to discuss the way forward. Those meetings will go ahead in the wake of Kim's passing but decisions will almost certainly be delayed as it is not clear if North Korean officials will be in position to handle any engagement with the outside, the U.S. officials said.
Associated Press writer Richard Lardner contributed to this report.