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."
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.