South Korea reached out to rival North Korea on Thursday, nearly three weeks after the death of the North's iron-fisted ruler Kim Jong-il, saying it wanted to reopen dialogue despite the North's vitriolic outbursts.
"We are open to dialogue with North Korea," Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan told a news briefing in the South Korean capital, Seoul. "The ball is now in North Korea's court."
He said it appeared North Korea had not yet decided on its "postures in dealing with the outside world.”
"We are not in a position to tell what is happening in North Korea," he added, saying Kim's youngest son and chosen "great successor,” Kim Jong-un, appeared intent, for now, on exerting his influence over the military.
The outside world knows little about the North, and both the United States and its ally South Korea appeared to be caught off guard when state media announced Kim Jong-il's death last month.
The North has closed its borders since Kim's death, completely cutting it off from the outside world, although South Korean officials say they are unaware of any troubles in the hermit state.
"So far, it seems there are no big problems [with the succession process]," South Korean Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik told a separate news conference in Seoul. The ministry handles relations with the North.
China urged to act
Since Kim's state funeral last week, the North has returned to using bellicose language against its neighbor, assailing conservative President Lee Myung-bak and his government for lacking the decency to mourn the death of a compatriot leader.
The North's Rodong Sinmun newspaper said on Thursday it was impossible to improve inter-Korean relations as long as the "Lee Myung Bak group of traitors stays in office.”
Lee angered North Korea by cutting off aid when he took office in 2008, and demanding nuclear disarmament and economic reform as conditions for food aid and political engagement.
The top US diplomat for East Asian affairs, Kurt Campbell, told reporters in Seoul that an essential component of any US-North Korean talks was an improvement of inter-Korean relations.
Campbell, on his first visit to North Asia since Kim's death, also called on the North's main benefactor China "to make clear the importance of restraint by the new North Korean leadership.”
Analysts say Kim Jong-un could take action, such as a military attack or more nuclear or missile tests, to burnish his credentials as a militaristic leader in the same mould as his father and grandfather.
Over the past few months, officials from North and South Korea and the US have met for a series of bilateral talks aimed at restarting stalled aid-for-disarmament talks.
The talks contributed to an easing of tension on the peninsula after 50 South Koreans were killed in two separate attacks a year earlier.
Washington appeared to be on the verge of resuming sending food aid to the impoverished North, and there were high hopes Pyongyang was prepared to halt its nuclear programs and allow the return of international nuclear inspectors.
Such moves by North Korea, which has twice tested nuclear devices, were preconditions set by South Korea and the United States for resuming the six-party talks, which offer the North aid and diplomatic contacts in return for disabling its nuclear weapons program.
Unification Minister Yu said that the impoverished North stood to gain massive aid if it "makes a wise choice and determination" to engage in dialogue.
The South's Foreign Ministry said in its annual report issued on Thursday that its main goal this year was to maintain stability on the peninsula as the North sought to solidify the succession process.
"To that end, the government will strengthen cooperation with involved nations, including the United States, China, Russia, and Japan," the ministry said.