South Korea's intelligence agency has confirmed that it believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Il temporarily lost consciousness during a stroke sometime after Aug. 14 and underwent brain surgery by a French doctor.
Kim is said to be recovering, with various reports on his condition ranging from no ill effects to speech impediments to partial paralysis.
Since the North Korean leader's no-show at his country's 60th anniversary celebration on Tuesday, rumors about his health have re-ignited speculation about what, if any, succession plan the country has in place for the time when Kim's replacement is needed.
Kim's ability to lead is believed to be closely tied to the country's nuclear ambitions. North Korea agreed last year to disable its nuclear facilities in exchange for economic aid and political concessions, but negotiations hit a snag and recent reports suggest that the country's Yongbyon nuclear plant is reassembling its nuclear facilities.
South Korean scholars in Seoul suggest that, contrary to the notion that the reclusive nation will collapse after the notorious ruler dies, North Korea will follow a systematically organized succession procedure.
"We often undermine their regime," said Baek Seung-Joo, a top North Korea analyst at Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. "But, really, the system inside the [ruling] Workers' Party is well structured. The North already has a post-Kim Jong-Il plan and the outside world is just wild guessing what it is."
Military Rule, or Third-Generation Kim?
Most speculation centers around the North Korean National Defense Commission's taking control, or one of Kim's three sons assuming his role -- either in an official capacity or as a figurehead atop the military commission.
Kim Jong Il was given the golden key to rule the country by his late father and founder of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, in 1994, after 20 years of leadership training. Despite concerns about their relative inexperience, one of his sons could be next -- if not immediately, then eventually.
"After all, international reputation and public opinion has never been a variant to Kim Jung-Il," said Cheong Seong-Chang, director at the Sejong Institute, a non-profit research institute in North Korea.
Of Kim's three officially recognized sons, the second-oldest son, 27-year-old Kim Jung-Chul, appears to be the frontrunner to succeed him. Born in 1981, he studied at the International School of Berne in Switzerland from 1993 to 1997 under a pseudonym, Park Chul.
Last year, he was appointed the deputy chief of a leadership division in the Workers' Party, the same post that Kim Jong-Il once held. The other two sons have had no key positions.
Kim's youngest son, 24-year-old Kim Jung-Un, is said to be the leader's favorite because of his good looks and mannerisms that are similar to those of his father, according to Kenji Fujimoto, who wrote a best-selling memoir about Kim after serving as his chef for 13 years.
Of the two, Kim Jung-Chul is seen as the most likely successor. Professors and journalists in Seoul report that Pyongyang already notified China in 2005 of its intention to train Kim Jung-Chul as the heir.
But Choi Soo-young, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, believes that neither of the two younger sons is likely to be in an immediate position of power.
"If one of Kim's sons was selected as a leader of the nation, he would be working as just a figurehead," he said. "The most influential plan we can think of at this moment is [the nation controlled by] the collective military system, which is consisted of actual powers of the party and the military.
"If Kim Jong Il decides to hand over the nation's controlling power to the collective military system, North Korea will finally possess influential power as a nation with strong military force."
Oldest Son Unlikely to Be Chosen
Until 2001, it was widely believed that first-son Kim Jung-Nam, 37, was the "Dear Leader's" favorite. But that year he was caught in Japan trying to sneak in using a fake Dominican passport on his way to Tokyo's Disney Resort.
Kim Jung-Nam's birth mother has also been the subject of disapproval by the party. Song Hye-Rim, at the time the nation's top actress, was a married woman with a daughter when Kim Jong-Il fell in love with her in 1968. She divorced and started living with Kim in 1970, and their son was born a year later. But Song was never officially married to Kim. She sought exile in 1996 to a third country and reportedly died later in Moscow.
For the rest of the world, the crucial element of the succession plan will focus on North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
"North Korea, regardless of Kim's death, will continue to bring up the nuclear issue based on its 'self-reliance' ideology, which affirms one's own decision-making as an independent nation, and will never give it up," said Kim Young Soo, a professor of political science at Sogang University in South Korea. "In fact, if Kim Jong Il's power weakens or something bad happens with him, North Korea is more likely to hold on to nuclear weapons as its last resort."
Regardless of the succession plan, diplomacy with the United States is likely to play a large role in any future North Korean nuclear plans. The apparent reassembling of the Yongbyon nuclear plant began after the United States delayed following through on a promise to remove Pyongyang from the U.S. terrorism blacklist.
"They will keep their pace and wait to react to the world community, depending on how the next U.S. administration treats them," said Chon Hyun-joon, senior researcher with the Korea Institute for National Unification. "The military in NK knows that they need to squeeze out as much as they can from the negotiations with the U.S.
"They are well aware that some hawkish Americans want to destroy the regime, so as long as they get security guarantee to prolong their regime, whoever takes charge after Kim Jong Il will choose to give up its nuclear program. So the key is in the hands of the U.S., not with the future North Korea's leader."
Wire services contributed to this report.