- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that North Korea’s leadership situation is uncertain and the United States is worried the Stalinist country may soon face a succession crisis to replace dictator Kim Jong Il.

Clinton said the Obama administration is deeply concerned that a potential change in Pyongyang’s ruling structure could raise already heightened tensions between North Korea and its neighbors as potential successors to Kim jockey for position and power.

Her comments, made to reporters during a flight to South Korea from Indonesia, were a rare if not unprecedented public acknowledgment from a senior U.S. official that the secretive nation may be preparing for a leadership change following reports that Kim suffered a stroke last year.

Clinton said the South Koreans are particularly worried “about what’s up in North Korea, what the succession could be, what it means for them, and they are looking for us to use our best efforts to try to get the agenda of denuclearization and nonproliferation back in gear.”

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“Everybody is trying to sort of read the tea leaves as to what is happening and what is likely to occur, and there is a lot of guessing going on,” Clinton said, referring to talks between Chinese, South Korean, Japanese and U.S. officials about the situation in the North.

“But there is also an increasing amount of pressure because if there is a succession, even if it’s a peaceful succession, that creates more uncertainty and it may also encourage behaviors that are even more provocative as a way to consolidate power within the society,” she said.

Clinton, who will visit China over the weekend, said she would be seeking advice in Seoul and Beijing about how to resume stalled six-nation disarmament talks given questions about Kim’s health and who is now or may soon be in charge in Pyongyang.

“Our goal is to try to come up with a strategy that is effective in influencing the behavior of the North Koreans at a time when the whole leadership situation is somewhat unclear,” she said.

“You add to the already-difficult challenge of working with the North Koreans the uncertainties that come from questions about potential succession, this is a difficult undertaking,” Clinton said.

Her remarks came as North Korea stepped up belligerent rhetoric toward the United States and South Korea amid signs the North is planning to test fire what intelligence analysts believe is a long-range missile.

Just hours before Clinton arrived in Seoul, the North Korean military issued a statement accusing South Korean president Lee Myung-bak of misusing “nonexistent nuclear and missile threats” as a pretext to invade. “The Lee Myung-Bak group of traitors should never forget that the (North) Korean People’s Army is fully ready for an all-out confrontation,” said the statement, carried by the Korean official news agency.

Clinton is to meet with Lee on Friday and said she would speak to him and others about how to defuse tensions between the two Koreas. “We don’t want it to spiral up,” she said.

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