Recent rumors have prompted speculation that North Korea's government could be facing dangerous instability. While many experts say the speculation is overblown, they warn that Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Washington are unprepared for an unexpected collapse of the Pyongyang government.
First there were reports last month that pictures of leader Kim Jong Il had disappeared from North Korean walls. Next were the rumors that some of Pyongyang's top generals had defected to Beijing.
That was followed by speculation that Mr. Kim's hold on power could be wavering.
Balbina Hwang, a Korea expert at the U.S. think tank the Heritage Foundation, is one of many analysts who say the talk is exaggerated. She thinks Pyongyang may be carefully preparing for some changes in the governmental structure, but there is little likelihood of the regime collapsing.
"It's certainly possible, but I suspect that Kim Jong Il has a much, much stronger hold on what's going on," said Ms. Hwang.
North Korea is one of the most closed countries in the world, making it difficult to determine just what goes on in Pyongyang. Several experts say the reports about the photos may indicate that Kim Jong Il feels he has a firm grip on power, and no longer needs to establish legitimacy by constantly setting himself alongside his predecessor and late father, Kim Il Sung.
"Kim Jong Il has said that last year, about his pictures, that he doesn't need pictures on the wall anymore with Kim Il Sung, side by side," noted Choi Jin-wook, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
The rumors, however, do raise the question of what happens if Kim Jong Il should lose power suddenly. Or if the 62-year-old leader dies unexpectedly. Ms. Hwang says that while intelligence agencies in the United States, South Korea and Japan probably have studied the question, there is little public information about plans to react to sudden change in North Korea.
"I've always argued that people in the private sector should do these sorts of studies because I don't think people have been considering this enough," said Ms. Hwang. "In addition, I don't think that Washington or Seoul or Tokyo, for that matter, have adequately come with up contingency plans."
Kim Jong Il took power in 1994, after the death of his father, the country's first leader. The younger Kim was groomed for leadership for years, but it is not clear that his own sons as yet have received the same sort of training, or would be able to establish themselves as legitimate leaders.
Hideya Kurata is an associate professor at Kyorin University in Japan, and specializes in North Korean security issues. He and other analysts say that the death of the younger Kim, leaving the country without a leader who can claim legitimacy based on ties to Kim Il Sung, could spell the end of the communist government altogether.
"The death of the Kim Jong Il regime means the death of, the collapse of the North Korean political system, and also the end of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea," said Mr. Kurata.
Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Institute of International Economics in the United States, has studied the possibilities of a change to North Korea's government.
The worst scenario is one in which a massive flood of North Korean refugees throughout Northeastern Asia causes a humanitarian disaster. Mr. Noland says South Korea, the United States and China would need to work quickly together to bring the situation under control.
"The militaries of South Korea, the United States and China would be drawn into it, if only for the reason that they have the logistical capabilities of responding rapidly to mass population movements," said Mr. Nolan. "To my knowledge, the United States and China do not have serious discussions about these contingencies."
That, he says, creates a situation in which the Chinese and U.S. militaries are unprepared to work together, and could come into conflict even as they tried to help the refugees.
Although analysts say it does not appear that Mr. Kim is in any danger of dying or losing power soon, they warn that communist governments have sometimes collapsed unexpectedly, catching the rest of the world unprepared.
They point to the 1989 toppling of the Berlin Wall, which led to the reunification of East and West Germany, and to the fall of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania.
Given such examples, they say, experts in Washington, Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo should at least begin discussing that possibility in North Korea.