WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is greeting with a shrug an expected North Korean political convention that could see the public debut of the country's next ruler.
World leaders come and go, even in totalitarian North Korea; the important thing, U.S. officials say, is for the country to live up to past nuclear disarmament promises.
As North Korea hints that a meeting that could promote Kim Jong Il's son as successor is imminent, the United States has steered clear of prediction, saying it is uncertain whether a new leader would spark change.
"We're watching the leadership process and don't have any idea yet how it's going to turn out," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said this week. She made clear that the U.S. goal is "to try to convince whoever is in leadership in North Korea that their future would be far better served by" giving up their nuclear ambitions.
The meeting would be the biggest since a 1980 gathering where Kim Jong Il made his public debut as future leader. Kim reportedly is suffering from health problems and is thought to be grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to continue the ruling dynasty that began with Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said it is hard to say whether new North Korean leadership would make a difference in U.S. policy. "Leaders of all stripes change around the world. Leaders don't live forever," Crowley said. "What we're looking for is a change in the direction of North Korean policy and North Korean actions."
Should it convene, the North Korean convention would come amid a flurry of diplomatic activity among the five countries pushing the North to resume stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations.
Envoys from China, which has pushed for the resumption of talks, and South Korea, which has accused North Korea of torpedoing one if its warships in March, visited the State Department last week. The Obama administration's top envoys on North Korea head to Asia next week for discussions with their counterparts in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing.
The sinking of the warship Cheonan is the latest hurdle for the long-running disarmament talks. A South Korean-led team of international investigators blamed the explosion on a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine. North Korea denies any involvement.
The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, asked Thursday whether a North Korean apology or admission of guilt is necessary for nuclear talks to resume, said, "It will be critical for there to be some element of reconciliation between the North and South for any process to move forward."
There have been recent signs of an easing in North-South tensions. North Korea this week freed the crew of a South Korean fishing boat seized a month ago. The North also has asked the South for aid.
Crowley said the United States is prepared to engage the North, even as Washington enforces tough sanctions.
"We want, ultimately, North Korea to change its behavior. And we are prepared to adapt as we see change in North Korea's behavior," Crowley said. But "the onus is on North Korea to take steps to show its commitment to its international obligations, to be a more constructive neighbor."