By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday the United States hopes North Korea will follow the "path of peace" after the death of its leader Kim Jong-il and urged the country to work with the international community and improve relations with its neighbors.
Clinton also expressed concern for the well-being of the North Korean population.
"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 said in a statement.
"The United States stands ready to help the North Korean people and urges the new leadership to work with the international community to usher in a new era of peace, prosperity and lasting security on the Korean Peninsula," Clinton said.
Earlier on Monday, the United States offered the prospect of renewed engagement with North Korea if it takes steps toward denuclearization, but officials said they expected little movement as the isolated state embarked 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.
President Barack Obama spoke by phone on Monday to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the White House said. Obama "conveyed the importance he places on maintaining the stability of the Korean peninsula and the region," the White House said in a statement.
HOPE FOR IMPROVED RELATIONS
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," Clinton said earlier Monday after meeting with visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba,.
Gemba 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.
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.
TALKS BROKE DOWN IN 2008
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)