SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A senior U.S. diplomat on Tuesday expressed "hope in diplomacy" for settling differences with North Korea, but he reassured ally Seoul that a lasting U.S.-South Korea military presence will back up any talks.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, also said that Pyongyang must improve relations with rival Seoul before it can have better relations with the world.
"I share with South Korean friends that there is hope in diplomacy, but I must be very clear that that hope of diplomacy rests on the reality of a very strong deterrence and military commitment, and that will be unwavering," Campbell said during a speech at a dinner hosted by The Korea Society in Seoul.
Many are closely watching U.S.-North Korea ties for clues about the direction North Korea will take as a young new leader, Kim Jong Un, works to consolidate power over a nation that proudly trumpets its efforts to build nuclear weapons and has a history of aggression against its southern neighbor.
Shortly before the Dec. 17 death of Kim Jong Un's father, longtime leader Kim Jong Il, Washington and Pyongyang appeared close to a deal on food aid. The North, in turn, was expected to suspend uranium enrichment, which could give Pyongyang another possible route to making nuclear bombs and is a crucial hurdle to restarting six-nation aid-for-nuclear disarmament talks that have been stalled since early 2009.
South Korean Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, in remarks ahead of Campbell's speech, said Seoul is ready for cooperation "if North Korea shows sincerity."
"North Korea should be denuclearified as soon as possible," Kim added.
North Korea has repeatedly pressed for the resumption of nuclear talks, but Washington and Seoul have said Pyongyang must first follow through on previous nuclear commitments.
As Kim Jong Un extends his family dynasty into a third generation, there has been uncertainty about whether North Korea will lean toward provocation or reconciliation — and how tightly Pyongyang will cling to its nuclear program.
Pyongyang conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and has developed missiles with the potential to attack its neighbors and possibly reach the United States.
North Korea's state media said Monday the United States was working to establish a stronger presence in Asia in order to become an "emperor of the world."
"The U.S. unlimited imperialist greed and military adventures are posing a grave menace to peace and stability in the region," the North said.
Despite the harsh rhetoric, however, North Korea has also suggested it is open to suspending its uranium enrichment program if it can get the food it wants from the United States.
North Korea also set an apparently conciliatory tone in its New Year's editorial, which provides a major signal of its policy priorities, by omitting the usual glorification of its nuclear ambitions and harsh criticism of the United States.
Follow Foster Klug on Twitter at twitter.com/APklug.