There was a time, not long after Cold War's end, when almost everyone assumed that North Korea would soon collapse. The sudden death in 1994 of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the disastrous North Korean experiment, reinforced this belief.
Today, no one can credibly say the dynastic Pyongyang regime, now led by "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il, is certain to fall. From insistence that the end of the Kim dynasty was approaching, consensus is emerging on the continued existence of their regime.
Immediately after the stroke that killed his father at an exclusive summer resort villa on a remote mountain, Kim Jong-il consolidated political power by concentrating it in the hands of a very few diehard loyalists - and jailing, torturing and killing anyone he viewed as an opponent.
Nevertheless, despite his long tenure, Mr. Kim's hold on power has at times been threatened by a small group of dissidents. Now that poor health has forced him to prepare to hand power to his third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un (the so-called "Young General"), opposition has become more visible.
In 2004, a train explosion at Ryongchon killed 160 people and injured 1,300. Many believe that it was an attempt to assassinate Mr. Kim, whose custom-built train had passed a few hours before the blast. South Korean intelligence institutions have since been assessing his ability to organize an orderly dynastic succession. In particular, they have been monitoring the body count of senior North Korean officials who have suddenly retired, disappeared or died in automobile accidents.
Indeed, the number of recent changes in the North Korean hierarchy strongly suggests serious domestic opposition to the continuance of Mr. Kim's misbegotten rule.
Kim Il-chol, 80, an admiral and vice-minister for the armed forces, was removed from his post in May. He was sent into retirement, supposedly because of his advanced age, but there are even older figures in North Korea's gerontocracy. Pak Nam-gi, the senior Finance Ministry official considered responsible for the botched issuance of a new currency last year, has disappeared; Kim Yong-il, North Korea's prime minister, was fired on June 7. Ri Je-gang, a senior Workers' Party director, was killed in a bizarre car crash on June 2.
The most common explanation for all of these changes is that the Dear Leader is circling the wagons around himself and the Young General. A disciplined succession plan is needed because Mr. Kim is 68 and in bad health (and thus unlikely to still be holding power in 2012, the year he targeted for North Korea to become a "Strong and Prosperous Country").
In the meantime, the armed forces appear to remain loyal to Mr. Kim, willing to carry out his orders even at the risk of bringing the country to the brink of war, such as by allegedly sinking the South Korean naval ship Cheonan in March and warning of "powerful nuclear deterrence" against joint South Korean and U.S. military drills.
North Korea's unpredictability and China's staunch support for the regime appear to be boxing in South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's conservative government. Mr. Lee must not only calculate how tough to be with North Korea in response to the death of the Cheonan sailors, but also find a way to keep working with Mr. Kim's police state. He will most likely opt for a tactical retreat. Instead of pushing for serious United Nations sanctions, Mr. Lee's government will eventually, it seems, focus on reviving the six-party talks to end the North's nuclear-weapons program.
There is no way to know what will happen in North Korea when Mr. Kim dies. But it is time for Asia's powers to start thinking creatively and acting co-operatively to prevent a violent implosion. For now, South Korea will need to rely on lionhearted tolerance, because there is simply no other viable option at hand.
Lee Byong-chul is senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Co-operation in Seoul.