First U.S. contact with North Korea since dictator's death
The body of Kim Jong Il lies in state in the North Korean capital Pyongyang Tuesday. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
December 20th, 2011
05:19 PM ET

First U.S. contact with North Korea since dictator's death

By Jamie Crawford

The United States has been in touch with North Korean government officials since the death of Kim Jong-il was announced, but those discussions were more "technical" in nature, a State Department spokeswoman said Tuesday.

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the discussions were regarding the parameters for the resumption of U.S. food aid to North Korea.

"I can't speak to whether it was broader," Nuland said during a briefing with reporters. "But it was a technical level and it was designed to make clear that we still had questions with regard to the nutritional assistance issues."

In the absence of normalized diplomatic relations between the two countries, the U.S. communication with North Korean officials went through the normal channel of the North Korean mission to the United Nations, Nuland said.

The United States was in discussions with North Korean officials in Beijing last week to look at monitoring mechanisms required before America could extend food assistance to the North Korean people. The Obama administration was concerned that without proper monitoring, such assistance could be diverted to the military and away from people who need it in North Korea.

Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, and Jon Brause, deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, met with North Korean officials last week in Beijing to discuss the issue of food aid. While the talks have been characterized as constructive by U.S. officials, there are still a number of issues that need to be resolved before a final decision is made officials say.

An official period of mourning in North Korea will run through next week, and U.S. officials say there is not likely to be much engagement with the North Korean government on food aid discussions, or any resumption of the six-party talks on the North's nuclear program, until that period ends.

In crafting a message to the North Korean people following Kim's death, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton consulted with the other members of the six-party talks before putting out a more "fulsome" statement that went beyond what she had said earlier in the day Monday following a meeting with the visiting Japanese foreign minister, Nuland said.

Clinton called for a better future for the North Korean people, and for the new leadership to honor the country's commitments, to improve its relations with neighbors, and to respect the rights of its people.

The statement, which was not released until after 10 p.m. in Washington, was delayed "because of the time difference, where we had partners who were asleep in the middle of the day, we weren't able to fully consult and coordinate," Nuland said.

The statement "was intended to be a signal of our expectations and hopes for the new regime," Nuland said when pressed on why a specific note of condolence was not included in the statement. "With regard to the C-word, I think we didn't consider it appropriate in this case."

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