Image: Hillary Clinton escorted by Han Duck-Soo
Jung Yeon-je  /  AFP - Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is escorted by Han Duck-Soo, Seoul's  ambassador to Washington, upon her arrival at a military airport in Seongnam, South Korea, on Thursday.
updated 2/19/2009 2:51:14 PM ET 2009-02-19T19:51:14

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.

She said the uncertainty may be contributing to a recent rise in hostile rhetoric coming from the reclusive communist state as well as the North's apparent moves to launch a long-range missile.

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."

'Read the tea leaves'
"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.

Kim, 67, inherited leadership from his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, in 1994, creating the world's first communist dynasty. He rules the nation of 23 million people with total authority, allowing no opposition or dissent.

His failure to show up last September for a military parade marking the country's 60th anniversary spurred questions about the health of a man believed to have diabetes, heart disease and other chronic ailments.

South Korean and U.S. officials later said Kim suffered a stroke and underwent brain surgery in August. North Korean officials have steadfastly denied Kim was ever ill.

However, state-run media made no mention of Kim's public appearances for weeks last fall, feeding fears that his sudden death without naming a successor could leave a power vacuum and spark an internal struggle.

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Question of succession
Kim's father had cultivated a powerful cult of personality that encompassed him and his son and recent dispatches in North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency have stressed the importance of bloodline and inheritance in what is seen as references to the succession plan.

Kim Jong Il is believed to have at least three sons: Kim Jong Nam, in his late 30s; Kim Jong Chul, in his late 20s; and Kim Jong Un, a son in his mid-20s by another companion.

The eldest is believed to have been the favorite to succeed his father until he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport in 2001, reportedly to visit Tokyo Disneyland.

Last month, South Korean news agency Yonhap said the youngest, Kim Jong Un, was named Kim's heir apparent.

And, on Thursday, citing unnamed sources in Beijing, Yonhap said Kim Jong Un had registered his candidacy for March 8 parliamentary elections in a sign the son is poised to become the country's next leader.

Fueling speculation of possible power struggle, the North's state-run news agency reported last week that Kim Jong Il had replaced his defense minister and chief of the military's general staff.

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.

Visit to a Muslim nation
Earlier in Indonesia, Clinton relentlessly hammered home the Obama administration's message that America is under new management and ready to listen and engage the world.

"When the United States is absent, people believe that we are not interested and that can create a vacuum that destructive forces can fill," she told a group of journalists after meeting with Indonesia's leader on the second leg of a weeklong Asia tour. "We don't want to be absent. We want to be present."

She also took to the airwaves, appearing on the most popular youth show in the world's most populous Muslim nation to deliver her message and bring greetings from President Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood here.

"There is so much excitement in the air here," she told an enthusiastic studio audience on the MTV-style "Dahsyat" show, which translates in English to "Awesome." She said she had just spoken with Obama who wished them all well, drawing cheers.

Much of her appearance was lighthearted banter about her favorite music — the Beatles and Rolling Stones — and her poor singing abilities, but she also made clear that Washington wants to address Muslim concerns about U.S. policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

New leadership
Asked about the topic, which has deeply troubled Indonesians, Clinton took a shot at the Bush administration when explaining why she and Obama had appointed a special envoy to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict immediately after taking office.

Video: Hillary Clinton in Indonesia

"We felt like the United States had not been as active in trying to bring the parties together to resolve the conflict," she said. "We're going to work very hard to resolve what has been such a painful and difficult conflict for so many years."

Clinton also said she would attend a donors' pledging conference for rebuilding Gaza to be held in Egypt on March 2.

She met with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Thursday, but made no comment after 45 minutes of talks in his office.

Though most of Indonesia's 190 million Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith, public anger ran high over U.S. policy in the Middle East and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush years. The country has been hit by a string of suicide bombings targeting Western interests in recent years, but experts say an effective police crackdown has sharply reduced the terror threat.

Clinton praised Indonesia for its efforts to fight terrorism while respecting human rights and for its hard-won multiethnic democracy.

More on North Korea | Indonesia

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Clinton takes on N. Korea's nuclear agenda


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