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U.S.: North Korean leadership transition in early stages

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House said on Thursday that North Korea’s leadership transition appeared to be in the early stages and it would take some time to discern the final outcome.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (C), his son Kim Jong-un (2nd L), secretaries of the Workers' Party of Korea Central Committee and members of the Party Central Military Commission visit the cemetery for Chinese soldiers who died during the 1950-53 Korean War to lay wreaths before the grave of Mao Anying, son of Mao Zedong, to mark the 60th anniversary of the entry of Chinese troops into the war, in Hoechang County in this October 26, 2010 picture released by North Korea's KCNA news agency on October 27, 2010. REUTERS/KCNA

Jeff Bader, President Barack Obama’s Asia adviser, made clear, however, that Washington was closely monitoring the political situation in the secretive Communist state after North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s son, Jong-un, gained greater prominence in recent weeks as his father’s likely successor.

“They are clearly in the process of a transition, somewhat early in it,” Bader told reporters in a preview of Obama’s Asia tour next month for a Group of 20 summit. The trip will include a visit to South Korea, a close U.S. ally.

“I don’t think that the final outlines of what it (the leadership change) looks like are completely clear or will be clear for some time,” he added.

Bader declined to speculate about how a leadership shift might affect U.S.-led efforts to pressure Pyongyang to curb its nuclear ambitions. North Korea has remained defiant in the face of international sanctions.

“One can argue that ... before there’s a transition, there are opportunities (or) argue that there would be better opportunities, after a transition,” he said. “And I don’t think we take a position on that.”

“We are making proposals. We’re looking to do things. And if they do them before the transition occurs, because the current leader is looking for a legacy, that would be great. But I don’t think we can pin a policy on an assumption that that would be the case,” he said.

Separately, the Canadian government said it would tighten existing economic sanctions against North Korea to ban all imports and exports and prohibit new investment in North Korea by Canadians and people in Canada.

Official bilateral contacts will be limited to regional security concerns, the human rights and humanitarian situation in North Korea, inter-Korean relations and consular issues, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said.

The Korean leader’s son became his second-in-command on the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful Central Military Commission in September, positioning to succeed his ailing father.

Kim Jong-un, who was also given his first public title as an army general, was made a Central Committee member at the first party conference in 30 years.

Additional reporting by Alister Bull and David Ljunggren; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Stacey Joyce