US, allies plot next steps on post-Kim N.Korea

WASHINGTON, January 17, 2012 (AFP) - Senior officials from the United States and close allies South Korea and Japan met Tuesday to coordinate their next steps on North Korea amid deep concern following the death of leader Kim Jong-Il.

The United States was considering a new engagement drive with North Korea when Kim suddenly died on December 17, leaving control of the isolated and nuclear-armed state to his young and inexperienced son Kim Jong-Un.

Kurt Campbell, the top US diplomat on Asia, went into a day of closed-door talks with his Japanese counterpart Shinsuke Sugiyama and Lim Sung-Nam, South Korea's envoy to stalled nuclear talks on North Korea, a US official said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday that the talks "will focus on ensuring that we're well coordinated on our policy towards North Korea" and also look at "broader regional issues writ large."

The three countries comprise half of the six nations involved in years of diplomacy on North Korea's denuclearization. The talks also involved China, Russia and Pyongyang itself.

North Korea stormed out of talks in April 2009 to protest what it described as US hostility. It has since sought to resume dialogue, but the United States has insisted that Pyongyang clearly recommit to agreements on denuclearization.

In hopes of keeping open channels of communication, the United States held two rounds of talks with North Korea last year in New York and Geneva.

A third round was reportedly scheduled in Beijing before the announcement of Kim's death put the process on hold. The North said last week that Washington had offered it food aid and a suspension of sanctions if it halts its uranium enrichment program.

Nuland last week denied that the United States was linking food to politics and said Washington was still considering North Korea's longstanding requests for food assistance.

"Our decision will be based on our assessment of need and our ability to monitor what we might be able to provide," she said.

Christian-oriented US aid groups have said for months that North Korea desperately needs food assistance to save lives. But some South Korean policymakers and US lawmakers accuse the North of exaggerating its needs.