North Korea's new young leader must transform his impoverished country for the better or face a backlash from its oppressed people, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Thursday.
Clinton issued a direct appeal to Kim Jong Un: "Rather than invest in implements of war, feed your people."
She spoke to reporters after top diplomats and defense chiefs of the U.S. and South Korea resolved to respond decisively to military provocations from North Korea.
Clinton said Kim, the 20-something young man who rose to power after his father's death in December, could go down in history as a transformative leader if he brought North Korea "into the 21st century."
She said if he continued the model of the past, "Eventually North Korea will change because at some point people cannot live under such oppressive conditions: starving to death, being put into gulags and having their basic human rights denied."
"We are hoping he will chart a different course," Clinton said.
Kim is the third leader in a hereditary dynasty that has sustained six decades of autocratic rule in North Korea but is unable to feed its own people. Despite the chronic food shortages, North Korea has invested its scant resources in maintaining one of the world's largest standing armies and developing nuclear weapons that it claims are needed to deter a U.S. invasion.
The United Nations reported this week that millions of North Korean children don't get the food, medicine or health care they need to develop physically or mentally. It said nearly a third of children under 5 show signs of stunting.
As for South Korea's security, Clinton said the U.S., which maintains 28,000 troops there, would stand "shoulder-to-shoulder" with its ally. Her South Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, said Thursday's meeting should send a clear message to North Korea about the strength of the alliance.
Animosity between the rival Koreas is high following a North Korean rocket launch in April that violated a U.N. ban, and more recently threats to attack several South Korean media outlets.
In a joint statement issued after Thursday's talks, the U.S. reaffirmed it would defend South Korea through "the full range of U.S. military capabilities, both conventional and nuclear." The allies also agreed to strengthen their combined defenses against missiles and coordinate against cyber attacks and GPS jamming.
The statement said North Korea still could rejoin the international community "if it refrains from provocations and complies with its international obligations and commitments, which include taking concrete actions toward denuclearization."