SEOUL, South Korea — The highest American official to visit northeast Asia since the death of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, urged China on Thursday to help restrain the new leadership in the North from military provocations as it goes through a sensitive transition of power.
“We also urge China to make clear the importance of restraint by the new North Korean leadership,” Assistant Secretary of State M. Kurt Campbell told reporters in Seoul after meeting Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan of South Korea.
Mr. Campbell discussed developments in North Korea following Kim Jong-il’s death with Mr. Kim and other senior South Korean officials, as well as briefing them on the meetings he had with Chinese officials in Beijing on Wednesday.
When he met Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai and other senior Chinese officials, Mr. Campbell said, he asked Beijing to “consult closely” with Washington on developments in North Korea.
Although there is doubt on Beijing’s ability to influence the North Korean regime, China remains Pyongyang’s last remaining major ally. North Korea’s economic dependence on China has deepened in recent years as it suffered more international sanctions following its nuclear and long-range missile tests. That dependence has magnified the potential role China might be able to play in stabilizing the Korean Peninsula if the transition in Pyongyang went awry. China was the first country to endorse the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, the third son of Kim Jong-il, who died on Dec. 17.
One of the biggest concerns in the region is that Kim Jong-un — or whoever is engineering his rapid rise to top leadership of the North’s 1.2 million-member military and other key agencies of power — might initiate military provocations against South Korea to help consolidate internal unity.
Mr. Kim is believed to be in his late 20s. Whether he will be able to consolidate the kind of grip on power his father did — or how the power elites might behave if he fails to do so — remain topics of intense speculation and of potentially grave implications for the stability of the region.
“We underscore the strongest possible commitment of the United States to the enduring partnership between the United States and the Republic of Korea and the determination to be tightly aligned as we together face the new leadership transition in North Korea,” Mr. Campbell said, using the official name of South Korea.
The military commitment of the United States, which keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea, is crucial to South Korea’s defense against the North.