SEOUL — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that U.S. officials and allies were scrambling to prepare for the possible departure from power of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, a development she said threatened to increase turbulence in one of the world's most heavily armed regions.
Arriving in Seoul for security talks, Clinton said persistent signs in the secretive Pyongyang government suggested that a change of leadership might be at hand. She said the South Korean government had been especially concerned about possible developments inside its impoverished northern neighbor.
"Everybody's trying to read the tea leaves about what's happening and what's likely to occur," Clinton told reporters on her plane during a flight from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Seoul, broaching a topic that has rarely been discussed publicly by U.S. officials.
Clinton said that even a peaceful succession "creates more uncertainty, and it could create conditions that are even more provocative" as the ascendant leadership tries to consolidate power.
The comments from the top American diplomat are certain to provoke a sharp reaction from Pyongyang. Hours earlier, the North Korean regime had stepped up its confrontational rhetoric, saying its forces were "fully ready" for war with South Korea.
Clinton was in the fifth day of a weeklong trip to East Asia focused in part on what to do about North Korea, which is believed to have a few nuclear weapons.
U.S. intelligence agencies reported in August that the 67-year-old "Dear Leader," who has led the country since 1994, may have suffered a stroke or another serious health setback. Some observers played down the report and some U.S. officials have said since then that they believed Kim was once again in charge, if not at full capacity.
But Clinton's comments suggested that there is now a widespread conviction that Kim is on the way out, and that the South Koreans, Chinese, Americans and others are formulating plans on how to deal with the successor regime.
Signs of disarray in North Korea have included the firing this year of the defense minister and the military chief of staff. The promotion of one of Kim's three sons was announced and then withdrawn, U.S. officials noticed.
Some observers see another clue in the sudden breakdown of multinational talks over dismantlement of Pyongyang's nuclear program, and believe the regime's belligerent new tone may reflect the influence of emerging leaders.
Analysts have offered various possibilities about what the new leadership might look like. Some say that Kim's brother-in-law, or one of his three sons, could be a part of a new ruling group, but perhaps only as a figurehead.
Many experts fear that the successor regime, which will control the world's fifth-largest army, could be even more intractable than Kim's has been.
Clinton said the United States and its allies are trying to determine how to form a "common front" to restart the stalled nuclear negotiations, but pointed out that North Korea "has shown very little willingness to get back on track."
The fact that its leadership is now "somewhat unclear" has compounded other difficulties of working with the regime, making diplomacy "a difficult undertaking," Clinton said.
Clinton clarified her remarks this morning at an appearance with South Korea's foreign minister, saying U.S. officials aren't delaying diplomacy with North Korea until a new government emerges, but are "dealing with the government that exists right now." She disputed suggestions by some foreign policy analysts that she made a rookie mistake by speaking out on the sensitive subject.
"It's not like it's some classified matter that's not being discussed in many circles," she said.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan acknowledged that the succession issue is a top priority with Seoul as well.
Clinton also announced that the United States, as expected, is naming former diplomat Stephen Bosworth of Tufts University to be a part-time special representative to deal with North Korea issues.
The dangers of dealing with Pyongyang have been highlighted by recent reports that the regime is preparing to test a Taepodong 2 missile, which some believe may be capable of striking U.S. territory. North Korea isn't yet able to mount a nuclear weapon on its missiles, experts say.
The regime has made a series of threats against South Korea and the United States through its official news agency. Michael Green, a top Asia expert in the Bush administration who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this month that the chances for violence between North and South Korea are increasing in the disputed waters west of the Korean peninsula.
Obama administration officials have acknowledged that the outlook for dealing with North Korea is not encouraging. Advisors have said that the general gloom surrounding the issue has made it more difficult for the administration to find a special envoy to seek solutions.