'Path open' for North Korea talks, neighbours say

New leader Kim Jong-un visits construction site on 12 January 2012 (image via KCNA)
Image caption Kim Jong-un (R) only made his debut on the international stage in September 2010

A "path is open" for a return to stalled nuclear talks with North Korea, officials from the US, Japan and South Korea have said.

The comments came after top diplomats met in Washington.

The three countries remained committed to a 2005 deal under which Pyongyang agreed to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for aid, they said.

The high-level meeting was part of a flurry of diplomacy in the wake of Kim Jong-il's death last month.

North Korea's long-time leader died on 17 December. His son, who has very little political experience, has been installed as his successor.

But in an interview with the Associated Press news agency, a senior North Korean official said he was prepared for the role.

'Helped the general'

Talks between the closed communist state and five nations - the US, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia - on the denuclearisation deal have been stalled since April 2009.

The US and North Korea accuse each other of failing to abide by the agreement.

Since then tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen. South Korea accuses the North of sinking its warship in March 2010 and shelling a border island, two incidents which left 50 people dead.

North Korea denies any role in the first incident and says Seoul provoked the second.

In Washington the three officials, America's top diplomat on Asia Kurt Campbell, South Korea's nuclear envoy Lim Sung-nam and Japan's representative to the six-party talks Shinsuke Sugiyama, said they were committed to the denuclearisation deal.

"We also agreed that a path is open to North Korea towards the resumption of talks and improved relations with the United States, Japan and Republic of Korea through dialogue," a statement said.

Image caption Yang Hyong-sop said Kim Jong-un would carry out the intentions of his father

Since Kim Jong-il's death North Korean state media has urged citizens to rally around the new young leader. Its powerful National Defence Commission issued a statement on 29 December telling the outside world to expect no change.

Very little is known about Kim Jong-un - even his exact age is not clear. He was only introduced onto the world stage in September 2010, as Kim Jong-il began what appeared to be a process of formalising him as his successor.

But a senior North Korean official told the Associated Press news agency that the younger Kim has been helping his father for a long time.

AP formally opened a news bureau in Pyongyang on Monday - the first international news agency to establish a permanent presence there.

Yang Hyong-sop, a politburo member and vice-president of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, said Kim Jong-un knew the "exact intention" of his father.

"The respected comrade Kim Jong-un had long assisted the great Gen Kim Jong-il,'' he told AP. "It's not a secret that he has helped the great general in many different aspects - not only in military affairs but also the economy and other areas as well.''