WASHINGTON The United States must step up work with Asian allies and regional powers to be ready to cope with sudden change in nuclear-armed North Korea, a U.S. think tank warned on Tuesday.
The Council on Foreign Relations said that although North Korea defied predictions in the 1990s that it would collapse after the death of its founder, economic meltdown and a deadly famine, the state remains weak and vulnerable.
Change scenarios ranged from an orderly transfer of power from leader Kim Jong-il to a successor to a possibly violent struggle for power between military factions to a breakdown in political authority that would sow chaos in a country believed to have nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and with millions of armed troops, it said.
"The stakes are simply too high and the risks too great for U.S. policymakers to assume that this will not happen any time soon or that very little can usefully be done in advance," said the report.
The study said recent North Korean media efforts to portray leader Kim Jong-il as having recovered from a suspected stroke last August may have quelled speculation about his rule for now, but uncertainties remained in the opaque country.
"Kim Jong-il's condition may actually be much worse than press reports suggest and that his capacity to govern -- if it hasn't already been seriously compromised -- may be short lived," said the report.
Dealing with sudden change in North Korea would also require working with the North's neighbors China, Japan and Russia, whose interests on the peninsula do not always converge with each other or with the United States, it said.
"How the potential challenges associated with sudden, destabilizing change in North Korea are handled will have profound consequences for the subsequent evolution of Korea, the stability of northeast Asia, and the future course of U.S.-China relations," it said.
China and South Korea could end up competing for influence in a post-Kim North Korea, while a humanitarian crisis that spilled refugees over their borders would increase pressure on Beijing and Seoul to intervene, said the report.
U.S. policy should defer to the wishes of South Korea in managing change in North Korea instead of risking alienating that ally with unilateral steps, it said.
Washington should revive trilateral cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo and also engage with Beijing to overcome China's unwillingness to discuss its plans for North Korea in order minimize the potential for misunderstandings if a crisis erupts, said the report.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)