In 1994, the future looked dark for North Korea. The collapse of Soviet communism had eliminated much of itsoutside support, its people were starving and its economy was imploding. When the country's leader, Kim Il Sung, died, many predicted his regime would soon follow. Kim Jong Il, his heir, looked like a lightweight who would be unable to hold things together.
The pundits were wrong, of course, and 14 years later Kim is still around. In what condition, however, has been a guessing game since August, when, according to Japanese and South Korean officials, a stroke partly incapacitated the 66-year-old Dear Leader. Now uncertainty about his health and his failure to appoint a successor has spurred another round of speculation about what comes next. Again, experts are predicting the regime's collapse. Surely the end of the Kim dynasty will bring radical change to the land.
Or will it? It turns out that few hardened Korea watchers expect the Hermit Kingdom to transform itself soon, even if Kim dies. Moon Jong In, a former adviser to two South Korean presidents and a professor at Seoul's Yonsei University, argues that "North Korea is run by a system, not a person." Moon should know, since he attended the 2000 and 2007 North-South summits and has met most of Kim's entourage. He doesn't dispute that Kim is the supreme leader but is convinced that Kim's underlings will keep the place running smoothly if their boss expires. Moon argues that Kim's confederates, contrary to widespread belief, are savvy, well informed—"they read the South Korean newspapers more than their own"—and entirely capable of adapting.
What's more, say Moon and others, North Korea's elite are well aware of what could happen to them if they lose control. Back in the 1990s, Kim underscored this point by showing them footage of executed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and Kim's entourage is determined to prevent a similar shakeup. This makes it likely that when their boss does die, they will band together in some form of collective leadership, perhaps with one of Kim's sons as a figurehead. (None of the three—Kim Jong Nam, 37, Kim Jong Chol, 27, and Kim Jong Woon, 24—has emerged as a power in his own right.) The security forces, including the overlapping and antagonistic secret-police branches, would probably help keep the lid on. Those forces are run by 62-year-old Chang Song Taek, another front runner who is the husband of Kim's beloved younger sister.
North Korea's leaders would be aided in any such move by the intense secrecy thatcloaks the center of the regime. Once Kim dies, this would let them conceal the fact until they solidified power. If you think that sounds implausible, remember that Kim Il Sung remains the country's official head of state today—14 years after his death. Ko Yu Hwan of Seoul's Dongguk University says that "only once they've succeeded completely [with the transition] will they announce" Kim's passing.
The result, says Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, would be "a kind of rule by the dead. The two Kims would be gone," Yang explains, "but the collective leaders could run the country based on their teachings." This would mean a perpetuation of the Kims' ideology: glorifying the North as a spiritually and racially superior nation.
Some experts argue the real power broker in the North Korea today is the Army—the fourth largest in the world and a force that consumes about a third of the nation's GDP. The National Defense Commission, which oversees the military, is chaired by Kim himself, and once he dies his generals will be well positioned to claim Kim's mantle. As for what to expect from a military-led regime, analysts predict it would quickly try to demonstrate its importance by provoking a showdown with Washington or Seoul. Leonid Petrov, a Russian North Korea watcher based in the South, argues that that's already happening, pointing to recent moves such as announced plans to shut down the North-South border and new restrictions on travel to China.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed, and if Kim manages to hang on for a few more years, he might be able to position one of his sons to take the reins as a true leader, not a figurehead. Until his stroke, it was widely believed that Kim planned to wait until 2012, the centennial of his father's birth, to announce his successor. Should he recover, he could accelerate this process (until now, he's basically kept his kids out of the limelight and prevented them from getting administrative experience). But that's looking increasingly unlikely. South Korean government officials say in private that Kim's initial stroke was serious enough to leave him unconscious for more than 24 hours, and that 40 percent of his body has been paralyzed since. That suggests that even if Kim does hang on, his ability to govern will be considerably compromised. All the more ironic, then, if the system he helped create manages to keep on going without him.