By Jeremy Laurence and Christine Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea reached out to rival North Korea on Thursday, nearly three weeks after the death of the North's iron-fisted ruler Kim Jong-il, saying it wanted to reopen dialogue despite the North's vitriolic outbursts.
"We are open to dialogue with North Korea," Foreign Minister
Kim Sung-Hwan told a news briefing in the South Korean capital, Seoul. "The ball is now in North Korea's court."
He said it appeared North Korea had not yet decided on its "postures in dealing with the outside world."
"We are not in a position to tell what is happening in North Korea," he added, saying Kim's youngest son and chosen "great successor," Kim Jong-un, appeared intent, for now, on exerting his influence over the military.
The outside world knows little about the reclusive North, and both the United States and its ally South Korea appeared to be caught off guard when state media announced Kim Jong-il's death last month.
The North has closed its borders since Kim's death, completely cutting it off from the outside world, although officials say it appears the succession process is going smoothly.
Since Kim's state funeral last week, the North has returned to using bellicose language against its neighbor, assailing conservative President Lee Myung-bak and his government for lacking the decency to mourn the death of a compatriot leader.
Lee angered North Korea by cutting off aid when he took office in 2008, and demanding nuclear disarmament and economic reform as conditions for food aid and political engagement.
The top U.S. diplomat for East Asian affairs, Kurt Campbell, told reporters in Seoul that an essential component of any U.S.-North Korean talks was an improvement of inter-Korean relations.
Campbell is making his first visit to Seoul since Kim's death.
Over the last few months, officials from North and South Korea and the United States have met for a series of bilateral talks aimed at restarting stalled aid-for-disarmament talks.
The talks contributed to an easing of tension on the peninsula after 50 South Koreans were killed in two separate attacks a year earlier.
Washington appeared to be on the verge of resuming sending food aid to the impoverished North, and there were high hopes Pyongyang was prepared to halt its nuclear programs and allow the return of international nuclear inspectors.
Such moves by North Korea, which has twice tested nuclear devices, were preconditions set by South Korea and the United States for resuming the six-party talks, which offer the North aid and diplomatic contacts in return for disabling its nuclear weapons program.
The six party talks, involving the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China, have been stalled since 2008 when the North walked away from the deal.
The South's Foreign Ministry said in its annual report issued on Thursday that its main goal this year was to maintain stability on the peninsula as the North sought to solidify the succession process.
"To that end, the government will strengthen cooperation with involved nations, including the United States, China, Russia and Japan," the ministry said.
The South's Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs, said in its an annual policy report that it wanted to "open dialogue between senior officials" from the two Koreas as part of efforts to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)