SEOUL, South Korea — The reports this year from the court of Kim Jong-il, North Korea's emperor-dictator, were cryptic as always: One senior official died of heart attack, a second was killed in a car wreck, a third was dismissed and a fourth promoted.
South Koreans are still trying to divine the meaning of the series of official news reports from the darkness of the "Hermit Kingdom." Since Kim was reported to have had a stroke in 2008, speculation has swirled abroad about his health and who'd take his place.
The implications of a change in control over North Korea, the 20 million-plus people who live there, and its nuclear weapons program could be profound. Past predictions about the direction of the government in Pyongyang have been wrong, though, possibly because the country operates at the whim of a despot who allows very little information in or out.
When the South Korean warship Cheonan was sunk in March, apparently by a North Korean torpedo, some wondered if Kim, who's thought to be 69, was losing his grip on the military, or perhaps creating an external distraction at a time of domestic uncertainty.
"By sinking the Cheonan, they didn't gain anything," said Andrei Lankov, a Russian-born expert on North Korea who teaches at Seoul's Kookmin University.
Then why did North Korea do it? What does it mean?
"It signals something which is a well-known medical fact — strokes do not improve your analytical abilities," he said.
That said, Lankov cautioned that while the Korean Peninsula is less stable than usual, no one is going to war, and Kim Jong-il isn't leaving office "unless he dies."
Some observers view the recent deaths and changes in North Korean leadership as a sign that Kim is clearing the way for his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to take power eventually.
Because the younger Kim is in his late 20s — he's thought to be 27 or 28 — some analysts speculate that there's concern in Pyongyang that senior North Korean officials might try to push him aside if his father dies.
Kim Duk-hong, the second-most most senior defector known to have made it to the South, told McClatchy that even the whiff of Kim Jong-il's death could portend disaster in a nation where he's made himself a deity. Because the entire rationale for North Korea's repressive system rests upon its "Dear Leader," the building blocks of the state would likely tumble in his absence, Kim said.
Should Kim Jong-il die or become incapacitated without a strong successor in place, "North Korea will be destroyed," said Kim, who defected in 1997.
He added: "North Korea's not ready to prepare their (next) leader, so they face a very severe political crisis."
As a result, the "emperor" might be looking to eliminate or push aside potential rivals, installing in their place men to serve as trusted regents, said Park Syung-je, director at the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul, which is linked to South Korea's defense department.
Park pointed to the car crash early this month that took the life of Ri Je-gang, a senior member of the ruling Workers' Party, as suspicious. Ri's death came about three weeks after a senior member of country's national defense commission was removed from his job. Another powerful official, Ri Yong-chol, was reported by North Korea to have died of a heart attack in April.
"He's thinking: 'After I die, is this guy going to be loyal to my son?'" said Park, who arranged the interview with Kim Duk-hong. "He wants to get rid of them all, kill (them) or whatever."
It's also possible that the two deaths and the dismissal were due to age — the trio were all said to be 80 or older.
The string of deaths and job shuffling in North Korea have been very strange, but there's still no proof of what it all means, said Paik Hak-soon, the director of a Korean peninsula studies center at the Sejong Institute, a private South Korean think tank.
"So we have to watch very carefully," he said.
Whatever happens, the legacy of Kim Jong-il is washed in blood, said Kim Duk-hong, a small man in a navy pinstriped suit and straw fedora who came into the interview room with a team of plainclothes policemen.
"He treats people as slaves, with violence and deception," Kim said. "But the truth is he's not God. We just made an ordinary person a god."
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