The 28,000 American troops stationed near the 38th parallel use a simple acronym to refer to North Korea: KFR, the Kim Family Regime. The fact that the Kim Family Regime has lasted this long is a puzzle to many Western observers. While the leaders feast on imported lobster and drive luxury cars, there is not enough electricity to light the country at night.
The loyalty stems from a racial belief, instilled by propaganda, that Koreans are too pure to survive in the world without the protection of first the Great Leader and then his son. To the rest of the world, Kim Jong-il appears petulant and capricious but to North Koreans his vulnerability compared to his father and his steadfast fight against perceived American aggression make him a "dear" leader.
But the remarkable personality cult is waning as more and more information confronts the official line. Judging from the occasional leaked reports, the government is beginning to lose its iron grip. If the succession does not go according to plan, the world faces the prospect of a nuclear-armed state spiralling out of control and 22 million people needing emergency relief.
American soldiers are aware that they face the possibility of having simultaneously to conduct a relief operation and fight off the 100,000-strong North Korean special-operations forces lining the Demilitarised Zone. Then there is the question of whether or not the US Army has liaised with the People's Liberation Army about a contingency plan. What happens when Chinese and American soldiers find themselves face to face on North Korean soil?
To preserve its fragile stability, North Korea's only solution is to change rapidly. "If the regime does not open up economically, the country will barely progress. But even with a little more openness, North Korea can make enormous economic gains," says Ulrich Kelber, a German MP who recently visited Pyongyang.