February 19, 2009 / 2:18 AM / 11 years ago

Clinton to focus on North Korea in Seoul talks

SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and South Korean officials on Friday plan to discuss how to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program amid talk of a possible power struggle in Pyongyang.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is greeted by an unidentified U.S. official upon her arrival at a military airport in Seongnam, near Seoul, February 19, 2009. North Korea accused the United States on Thursday of planning a nuclear attack in a report which came as Clinton flew to Seoul for talks on defusing Pyongyang's military threat. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

The task has grown more daunting, Clinton said on Thursday, with the possibility of crisis over who may succeed North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, 67, who is widely believed to have suffered a stroke last August.

Talks among regional powers to try to push North Korea into giving up its attempts to build a nuclear arsenal, in exchange for an end to its pariah status and massive aid, have largely ground to a halt.

Speaking to reporters as she flew to South Korea, Clinton said “the whole leadership situation is somewhat unclear” in North Korea and that South Korea’s government has “a lot of worries” how and when Kim might be replaced.

“If there is a succession, even if it is a peaceful succession ... that creates more uncertainty and it also may encourage behaviors that are even more provocative as a way to consolidate power within the society,” she said.

Clinton landed in Seoul on the third stop of her Asia tour following weeks of increasingly angry rhetoric by the North and reports it may be preparing to test a long-range missile that is designed to reach Alaska but has never successfully flown.

She plans to meet South Korea’s President, Lee Myung-bak, as well as the country’s prime minister and foreign minister on Friday, a day that will begin with a briefing by the general who oversees the roughly 28,000 U.S. troops in the country.

The succession is one of the most closely guarded secrets in North Korea but intelligence officials have said the three men most likely to replace Kim, in power since 1994, are his eldest and youngest sons and a brother-in-law. There is also speculation he could be succeeded by a ruling group of his top aides.

Talks among regional powers to try to push North Korea into giving up its attempts to build a nuclear arsenal, in exchange for an end to its pariah status and massive aid, have largely ground to a halt.

At the same time, North Korea has increased its saber-rattling. On Thursday, it accused the United States of planning a nuclear attack and said it was ready for war with South Korea.

Clinton could announce as early as Friday her choice of Stephen Bosworth, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, to be the U.S. envoy to multi-lateral talks on ending the North’s nuclear programs, two sources familiar with the matter said.

Editing by Giles Elgood

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