Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she hopes the new North Korean leadership will move the country on a path to peace, but she offered no condolences on the death of longtime dictator Kim Jong Il.
"We didn't consider it appropriate in this case," Clinton's spokeswoman Victoria Nuland explained today.
Kim's death came as the United States was preparing to resume food aid to North Korea. Though officials insist the issues are separate, they say they hope the aid will eventually lead to a resumption of negotiations regarding North Korea's nuclear weapons.
Nuland said today that it is unlikely the United States would resume food aid to North Korea before next year. The State Department says it still has concerns about monitoring the distribution of the aid and, given the weeks-long mourning period in North Korea following Kim's death, they believe it's unlikely those issues will be resolved before the end of the year.
A U.S. delegation that met with North Korean officials in Beijing last week to discuss the resumption of food aid reported to Clinton Monday.
"What they have reported is that while they did have a constructive round of discussions in Beijing last week with the DPRK interlocutors that they saw on nutritional needs and on monitoring issues, there are a number of issues that still need to be resolved," Nuland said, using the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"So we're going to have to keep talking about this, and given the mourning period, frankly, we don't think we'll be able to have much more clarity and resolve these issues before the new year," she said.
A senior U.S. official tried to downplay the significance of the delay.
"This event has to be gotten past (or through) before the North can return to anything approaching business as usual," the official said Monday in an email to ABC News. "Only twice in 60+ years have they had a leadership transition, and the Grand Kabuki must play out. I don't think in the decades-long scheme of things a few weeks or a month will make much of difference."
U.S. officials were in touch with North Korean officials Monday at the United Nations, through what's called the New York channel, to inform them that there is no deal yet on food aid, Nuland said, but she did not know whether there was any mention of Kim's death during that communication.
The Obama administration has reacted cautiously to the news of the dictator's death. Clinton ignored shouted questions about his death on Monday morning and limited her comments to brief statements in the afternoon and evening. The administration has consulted with its partners in the so-called Six Party Talks, which are an effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear program.
In addition to Obama's contacts, Clinton called Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Yiechi Monday night and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at noon today to discuss the situation in North Korea. On Monday, Clinton phoned her South Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, and met with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, who was in Washington on a previously scheduled visit.