SEOUL — How long can the North Korean regime survive?
A decade ago, it was taken as a matter of faith that it soon would be relegated to the same historical dustbin as the Soviet Union. But Kim Jong Il defied predictions of his political demise and embarrassed pundits stopped even broaching the topic of the regime's life expectancy.
Now, the subject is back on the table in a big way.
In South Korea, there are calls to update the government's classified contingency plan -- code-named Chungmu 3300 after a 16th century military hero -- to deal with a possible collapse of the North's regime. The leading government think tank here is dusting off old social science models designed for Eastern Europe in an attempt to predict how much longer Kim can last.
The Japanese media, meanwhile, has been full of breathless rumors -- most of which have proved untrue -- of mass defections by the North Korean military and the circulation of anti-Kim brochures in the North.
"The idea that North Korea is about to collapse is back in fashion," said Jeung Young-Tai, a member of the team at the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification studying the likelihood of collapse.
The latest wave of speculation was triggered by reports last month out of Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, that portraits of Kim had been removed from public buildings frequented by foreign diplomats. It later emerged that Kim had ordered the portraits removed to soften the cult of personality that has invited ridicule and unwelcome comparisons to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
But the speculation may have less to do with political forces inside North Korea than outside.
In particular, President Bush's reelection has emboldened critics of the North Korean regime in the United States and in Asia who want Kim ousted. The North Korean Human Rights Act, passed in October, allocates up to $24 million to promote better conditions for North Koreans, and has revitalized an activist movement made up largely of Christian missionaries.
The activists have flooded journalists with e-mail and the Internet with unsubstantiated rumors about instability inside North Korea.
"We are seeing a lot of fabricated tales going around lately," said Woo Jung Chang, an editor of the Chosun Monthly, an influential Seoul-based magazine.
"There is a lot of wishful thinking when it comes to predictions of North Korea's collapse," agreed Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
The subject of North Korea's stability is most sensitive in South Korea, where polls show that people are less fearful of a communist invasion than they are of a messy collapse that could send streams of hungry refugees across the border.
The South Korean government is so touchy about the issue that it recently threatened to prosecute an opposition assemblyman who publicly discussed the contingency plan for a North Korean collapse.
The strategy, which dates to the 1960s but has been revised, calls for the establishment of an interim civilian government to fill the vacuum that would be left by the collapse of the Pyongyang government and for emergency refugee shelters to be set up near the demilitarized zone separating the two nations.
"This is a realistic scenario and something we need to plan for and refine in detail.... Instead, we're not even allowed to talk about it," said the assemblyman, Chung Moon Hun.
At least officially, the South Korean government insists that such plans are unnecessary.
"It seems there's almost no possibility North Korea will collapse," President Roh Moo-hyun said in a sharply worded statement this month.
Like his Nobel laureate predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, Roh has pursued a number of projects designed to bolster the North Korean economy. This month, the two Koreas held a ceremony to celebrate the start of production at an industrial park in Kaesong, just north of the DMZ.
But Roh's stance is drawing fire from conservatives who accuse him of propping up a morally and economically bankrupt regime.
Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official who has been one of the most articulate U.S. advocates of toppling Kim, shocked the South Korean media during a recent visit here when he accused Roh of "making love to a corpse."
Horowitz was recently on a speaking tour, trying to convince analysts and policy-makers that Kim's regime was doomed. "At this stage, the only people who believe that Kim Jong Il can survive are those in the Roh Moo-hyun government and in the State Department," Horowitz said.
In fact, many North Korea experts appear to be genuinely confused about what is happening in the country.