The world's most unpredictable nation is thought to be heading for a succession crisis involving the three pillars of state - the Kim dynasty, the military and the Workers' Party.
Veteran generals and party technocrats are expected to install one of Kim Jong-il's sons or his brother-in-law as a figurehead for a collective leadership if the ailing 66-year-old "Dear Leader" is incapacitated or dies, US and South Korean intelligence believe.
But Kim's protracted recovery and his failure to groom an obvious successor - in contrast to the way he was prepared for power by his father Kim il-Sung, the nation's founder - have heightened fears of a political vacuum and in-fighting.
And North Korea's recent failure to complete two accords that would require Kim's approval - verification of nuclear disarmament and an agreement with Japan on abductions of citizens - is a sign that decision-making may already be crippled.
Although Beijing is regarded as an ally of Pyongyang, it does not want its impoverished neighbor to implode, potentially creating a wave of refugees trying to reach China.
US intelligence believes that Kim suffered a major stroke and that, with a family history of diabetes and heart disease, he is a prime candidate for another attack that could kill him. It believes he is able to talk and walk, but is very weak and his recovery could at best be slow.
[Excerpt of an article by Philip Sherwell and Stanlislav Varivoda, The Telegraph]