U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday urged North Korea to improve ties with South Korea through inter-Korean dialogue before any resumption of the six-party nuclear talks.
"And with respect to North Korea, we have made consistently clear what we expect from North Korea in its actions in the future," Clinton told reporters after meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto at the State Department. "We would like to see them engaging in meaningful dialogue with the South in the first instance, prior to any other steps that might be taken."
Clinton made the remarks as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has conveyed North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's proposal for an inter-Korean summit and a resumption of dialogue with the U.S. anytime to discuss any subject.
After concluding a three-day visit to North Korea, Carter said in Seoul Thursday that he did not meet with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, but added he was given a "written message" from Kim.
In a separate press briefing, Jacob Sullivan, the State Department's director of policy planning, echoed Clinton.
"We have consistently said that we believe that North Korea has to take meaningful steps to improve inter-Korean relations, that North-South talks are an important opportunity for North Korea to demonstrate its sincerity through dialogue and to take tangible steps to improve North-South relations," Sullivan said.
The South Korean government has not yet officially responded to Kim's summit proposal, amid some officials having shown skepticism about the sincerity of his intentions given the fact that such an important proposal was made through a third party.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan Monday downplayed the significance of Carter's North Korean tour, calling on North Korea to engage South Korea directly.
"We've also consistently said that we don't believe in talks just for the sake of talking," Sullivan said. "So the North has a clear sense of what it has to do, which is improve North-South
relations and demonstrate a change in behavior, including by ceasing provocative actions, taking steps toward irreversible denuclearization, and complying with its commitments under the 2005 joint statement and under the Security Council resolutions, both 1718 and 1874."
Discussions are underway among members of the six-party talks, including the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia to revive the talks, the official said. The talks have been stalled over the North's nuclear and missile tests and other provocations last year.
"But the core principle of the importance of North Korea showing through its behavior that it is meaningfully altering its course is something that is deeply shared by the United States and South Korea," he said.
Seoul and Washington want Pyongyang to address South Korean grievances over the North's torpedoing of a warship and the shelling of a border island that killed 50 people last year before any resumption of the six-party talks.
North Korea refused to apologize for last year's provocations and walked out of a rare inter-Korean dialogue in February.
South Korean chief nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac met with his Chinese counterpart, Wu Dawei, in Seoul Tuesday to agree on the need for North Korea to have a bilateral nuclear dialogue with South Korea first and then another bilateral discussion with the U.S. ahead of a plenary session of the multinational denuclearization-for-aid talks.
Another sticking issue is the uranium enrichment plant Pyongyang revealed in November, which triggered concerns that it might serve as another way of making nuclear weapons separate from its existing plutonium program.
Seoul and Washington want that to be dealt with at the U.N. Security Council first. Pyongyang and Beijing insist the uranium be discussed only at the six-party talks.
Sullivan dismissed Carter's claim that South Korea and the U.S. aggravated the food shortages in North Korea by suspending humanitarian food aid for political reasons.
U.S. food aid to the North was suspended in early 2009 amid heightened tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests and controversy over the transparency of food distribution.
Washington pledged to provide 500,000 tons of food in 2008, but delivered only 169,000 tons before the shipments were suspended in March 2009.
Sullivan said that the North Korean government should be held accountable for the food shortages.
"With respect to the issue of food aid, what I would say is that everyone should remember who is responsible for the plight of the North Korean people, and that is the North Korean government itself," he said.
The U.S. has not yet made a decision on whether to resume food aid to North Korea, he said, adding Washington was still assessing the food situation in North Korea.
The World Food Program said earlier in the day that it is launching an emergency operation to provide food aid to 3.5 million North Koreans suffering from severe food shortages.
The United Nations last month called for the provision of 430,000 tons of food aid to North Korea immediately to avoid "the risk of malnutrition and other diseases" for millions of children, women and the elderly in the North, stricken by floods and severe winter weather.
Critics say Pyongyang has been exaggerating the food shortages for political reasons, alleging North Korea is trying to hoard food in preparation for its distribution on the 100th anniversary of the birth of its late leader Kim Il-sung, the father of current leader, Kim Jong-il, which falls on April 15 next year.
The conservative Lee Myung-bak administration cut off virtually all economic ties and aid to North Korea after the North's attack on the South Korean warship Cheonan in March last year, although his liberal predecessors had provided 400,000 tons of food and fertilizer each to North Korea annually.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a speech to the Foreign Press Club here earlier in the day that the North Korean military is having difficulty securing food for soldiers this year, expressing concerns the "tough, complex situation" facing the North will force the North to make further provocations.