WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday urged North Korea's new leader to chart a different course than his father, saying he could become a transformative figure who steers his nation away from a dark history of starvation and oppression.
Many U.S. officials and North Korea experts fear the young Kim Jong-un will push ahead with the nuclear brinkmanship and repression of his of father Kim Jong-il, whose sudden death in December elevated the untested 20-something leader from obscurity.
"This young man, should he make a choice that would help bring North Korea into the 21st century, could go down in history as a transformative leader," Clinton told reporters after diplomatic and defence talks with South Korean leaders.
"Or he can continue the model of the past."
Clinton said that regardless of what Kim did, it was her belief that eventually the hermit state would change direction.
"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," she said.
"So we are hoping that (Kim) will chart a different course for his people."
So far, Kim, believed to be in his late 20s, has signalled that he will continue with his father's hardline "military first" policy, although he has shown some changes in style, speaking in public and doing other things Kim Jong-il never did.
Pyongyang tried but failed to launch a long-range rocket called Unha in April and many experts believe North Korea will eventually stage a third nuclear test, possibly using highly enriched - or weapons-grade - uranium for the first time.
Experts say North Korea already possesses enough fissile material from plutonium for at least six nuclear bombs.
In recent weeks, North Korean state media have carried out vicious personal attacks on South Korean President Lee Myung-bak -- calling the close ally of President Barack Obama a "rat" -- and issuing threats to shoot missiles at Seoul media outlets that published reports critical of Pyongyang.
A joint statement from the United States and South Korea following the defence and diplomatic talks stressed the need to "explore ways to strengthen comprehensive and combined defences against the missile threat."
The United States has around 28,000 troops in South Korea, which technically remains at war with the North after an armistice ended the Korean War in 1953.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by David Brunnstrom