SEOUL, South Korea - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday that U.S. officials and their allies are scrambling to prepare for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's possible departure from power, a development she said threatened new turbulence in one of the world's most heavily armed regions.
Arriving in Seoul for security talks, Clinton said persistent signs within the secretive Pyongyang government suggest that a change of leadership might be at hand. She said the South Korean government has 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," she told reporters on her flight to Seoul from Jakarta, Indonesia. 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 top U.S. diplomat's comments are likely to provoke a sharp reaction from Pyongyang. Hours earlier, the North Korean regime stepped up its confrontational rhetoric, saying its forces were "fully ready" for war with South Korea.
Clinton was on the fifth day of a weeklong trip to East Asia that is focused in part on what to do about North Korea, which is thought to have a handful of nuclear weapons. She flies to Beijing today for talks with the Chinese government.
After meeting with South Korea's foreign minister, Clinton named former Ambassador Steven Bosworth as her special envoy on North Korea.
Bosworth is a former senior State Department official and ambassador to South Korea. He's currently dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
U.S. intelligence agencies reported in August that North Korea's 67-year-old "Dear Leader," who has been in power since 1994, might have suffered a stroke or another serious health setback. Some observers played down the report, and some U.S. officials have since said they believe that Kim is once again in charge, if not at full capacity.
But Clinton's comments suggested a widespread conviction that Kim is on the way out.
Signs of disarray in the North have included the firings this year of the defense minister and the military chief of staff. The promotion of one of Kim's sons was announced - then withdrawn, U.S. officials noticed.
Some observers see another clue in the sudden breakdown of the talks over dismantlement of Pyongyang's nuclear program and believe that the regime's belligerent new tone might reflect the influence of emerging leaders.
Analysts have raised various possibilities about what the new leadership might look like. Some say Kim's brother-in-law or one of the leader's three sons could be a part of a new ruling group, but perhaps only as figureheads.
Many experts fear that the successor regime, which will control the world's fifth-largest army, could be even more intractable than Kim's rule 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 she pointed out that North Korea "has shown very little willingness to get back on track."
She said the fact that the North's leadership is "somewhat unclear" has compounded other difficulties of working with the regime, making diplomacy "a difficult undertaking."
The dangers of dealing with North Korea have been highlighted in recent weeks by reports that the regime is preparing to test a Taepodong--2 missile that some believe is potentially capable of striking U.S. territory. North Korea isn't yet able to mount a nuclear weapon on the tip of 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 peninsula.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.