WASHINGTON (AFP) — With Kim Jong Il's fate uncertain, US officials are worried about who gains control of North Korea's nuclear weapons, say experts.
They also want to know what effect any change of power might have on Japan and South Korea.
South Korea's intelligence agency said Wednesday that the North Korean leader had suffered a stroke, but that he was still able to run the country and would recover.
Pyongyang's number two, Kim Yong-Nam, was quoted by Japan's Kyodo news agency as saying there was "no problem" with his condition.
Some US experts fear that the leader's death or incapacitation would most probably lead to an army takeover, though they have not ruled out a power struggle or the collapse of the regime.
Regime collapse would raise not only the prospect of a humanitarian calamity -- with millions fleeing to neighbors China, South Korea and Japan -- but also the possible reunification of the Korean peninsula under US ally South Korea.
That, however, could trigger Beijing's intervention, said experts.
"If there is a collapse and you have a political and security vacuum, would South Korea feel impelled to go in to help the common North Korean citizens who they see as brothers?" asked Bruce Klingner, a former CIA officer in charge of North Korean affairs.
"Would that then cause China to feel it has to go in to protect its own interest to maintain a buffer?" said Klingner, now with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
China's impoverished nuclear armed neighbor serves as a buffer zone against South Korea and Japan, two democracies that have tens of thousands of US troops on their soil under longstanding security treaties.
China and South Korea are already locked in a dispute over Beijing's claim over an ancient kingdom that includes North Korea. China and Japan also have overlapping territorial claims.
The three nations have nevertheless, since 2003, worked with Russia and the United States in talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons drive.
The uncertainty over Kim's health raises the question of who would have ultimate authority over North Korea's nuclear arsenal, which US President George W. Bush's administration wants disbanded before he leaves office in January.
If Kim is ailing, that could hinder diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the nuclear crisis -- and efforts to pave the way for a peace treaty to replace the armistice signed at the end of the Korean War in 1953.
"Almost all experts expect the National Defense Council -- the army -- to run the country (if Kim is incapacitated or dies) and that would mean a much harder line on issues like nuclear weapons," said Michael Green, a former White House Asia hand.
"The one good thing you can say is that the countries around North Korea have a lot more trust among each other than they did before the six-party talks started," said Green, now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"But it's a real nightmare actually when you have to deal with the possibility of a complete collapse of power or massive humanitarian crisis or massive refugee flows to China, South Korea or Japan, or nuclear weapons," he added.
The United States, Green said, should work out a contingency plan to "stabilize" any such situation.
But Washington has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and virtually no influence inside the reclusive nation, said Scott Snyder, a Washington-based expert at the Asia Foundation.
"I don't think there are tools available to the United States to influence any possible faction, the outcome of any factional struggle inside North Korea," he added.
US scholars who have talked to Chinese military researchers said earlier this year that China had contingency plans to dispatch troops into North Korea and secure nuclear weapons in the event of instability.
Beijing would only intervene after consultations with the United Nations, the experts said in a report.
But if the international community did not respond swiftly and if the North Korean situation "deteriorated rapidly" it may act unilaterally.
The report, published in January, was compiled by experts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Asia Foundation and the US Institute of Peace.
"I think the United States has made a mistake by emphasizing China's role so much," said David Straus, a former State Department official now with California-based Stanford University.
"China's interests and the United States' interests on the Korean peninsula are similar in some respects but far from identical," he said.
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