North Korea's 'unpredictable' leadership poses a serious threat to peace in Asia, the chairman of the United States' Joint Chiefs of Staff told Chinese military leaders yesterday. And General John Shalikashvili, the first US military chief to visit China in 14 years, warned them that US troops were standing by in the event Hong Kong's handover failed to take place peacefully. Addressing officers of the People's Liberation Army, he said famine and economic upheaval in North Korea might prompt Pyongyang to seek a 'major military conflict' on the peninsula. 'This is a sad situation,' said the general. 'Today, the security situation on the Korean peninsula is worse than it was 25 years ago.' He said the 100,000-strong US forces deployed in the Asia Pacific region remained prepared for multiple major contingencies involving Pyongyang's secretive leaders. Pentagon officials have repeatedly predicted the imminent collapse of the Stalinist state amid widespread food shortages that threaten to trigger wholesale famine this summer, according to aid agencies. General Shalikashvili said US forces were also on guard in case of 'uncertainties' in the region - including the future of Hong Kong. 'Among these uncertainties is what will happen this summer with the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty,' he said. 'As the clock in Tiananmen Square counts down the hours, we hope the reversion of this vibrant city to Chinese control takes place peacefully and with respect for the welfare and human rights of the people involved,' he said. General Shalikashvili urged his audience at Beijing's PLA National Defence University to respect the welfare of Taiwan. It followed attempts to disrupt the island's first free presidential election in March last year with a barrage of missile tests in the Taiwan Strait. 'We hope, as you do, that future developments concerning Taiwan take place peacefully,' he said. General Shalikashvili also held private talks with the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, General Zhang Wannian, who told him the US should stop selling arms to Taiwan. In a goodwill gesture, the Pentagon presented the PLA University with documents outlining the deployment of 1.5 million American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines worldwide. 'Let's compare our lists!' joked General Shalikashvili, who appealed to his Chinese hosts to beware of suspicions that the US sought to contain China. 'Nothing could be further from the truth,' he said before touring PLA facilities. The Pentagon delegation ends its mainland tour today.