WASHINGTON — The United States and South Korea should be prepared for a crisis in North Korea when dictator Kim Jong Il leaves power, South Korea's defense chief said Friday.
Such a development appeared ever more likely Friday, as a top official told broadcaster APTN that North Koreans will be honored to follow the youngest son of Kim Jong Il as the third-generation leader of the reclusive communist nation.
Yang Hyong Sop, a top official in North Korea's ruling party, referred to Kim Jong Un as "the young general" during an exclusive interview with APTN.
Kim Jong Un would be the third successive generation of his family to lead the nation of 24 million.
Such a transfer of power to Kim's youngest son could have unpredictable consequences in the isolated nation, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said during a visit to the Pentagon.
"When Kim Jong Il's health may deteriorate, or if there's a movement of public opinion in North Korea, we cannot eliminate the possibility of there being an instability situation in North Korea" that would affect the security of the whole peninsula, Kim said.
He did not elaborate, but some experts warn that the North could try to raise the prestige of its next leader by launching missiles or attacking South Korean targets. Others have said change at the top could trigger a military coup or a popular revolt.
North Korea has maintained a tight grip on its people and economy over six decades, while it pursued nuclear and missile technology and repeatedly defied international demands to disarm.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who spoke with his South Korean counterpart, told reporters it is not clear that Kim Jong Un would steer his country differently than his father. In a joint statement following two days of talks, both the United States and South Korea said that they "will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state."
But North Korea's U.N. ambassador, Sin Son Ho, defended his country's nuclear deterrent, saying the Korean peninsula would already have turned into a "bloody ground of war" without it.
"The more the United States pursues the hostile policy and escalates nuclear threats against the sovereignty and existence of our nation, the DPRK will continue its self-defensive deterrence," Sin said, referring to his country using the initials of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
There are signs of improving relations between the Koreas, including plans for reunions of families divided by the Korean War and talk of reviving a joint tourism venture.
But the United States also has deep concerns. North Korea quit U.S.-backed disarmament talks two years ago, stands accused of torpedoing a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March, and may be seeking to resurrect its partially dismantled nuclear weapons program.
Some experts say North Korea may be trying to create the illusion of a thaw while it presses ahead with its nuclear program and reorders its political leadership.
"There's a lot of speculation about the circumstances that lay behind the sinking of the Cheonan and whether other provocations may follow," Gates said. "Provocations will not be tolerated."