NORTH Korea is the most secretive country on Earth where life is played out like a deadly game of chess.
And with reports that dictator Kim Jong-un is gravely ill or even dead – intelligence services around the world are desperately trying to find answers.
Kim has not been seen since April 11 and even missed the annual celebration of his grandfather and North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung's birthday – sparking renewed speculation about his health.
One report last week claimed the despot was in a “vegetative state” after a botched heart operation.
The Sun Online has spoken to two former senior UK diplomats with direct knowledge of the sinister regime which has been ruled by the Kim dynasty since 1948.
And former Foreign Office envoy Matthew Henderson that if the revered leader was indeed on life support, the situation would prove “delicate” for those left in charge of the rogue state.
He said: “Any individual who flicks the switch on his life support machine is signing their own death warrant.
They behave in an entirely alien manner
“We just do know how these people would react.
“But anyone who turned off his life support would be shot immediately as a murderer.”
Kim's sister Kim Yo-jong, who is the head of his propaganda machine, is reportedly believed to be best placed to take over if he dies.
However, Mr Henderson, who dealt directly with North Korea during his time at the Foreign Office, says the regime “behaves in an entirely alien manner” meaning it is “impossible to predict or assess” their next move.
He believes Yo-jong's gender will go against her in the backward country insisting at best “she would be the mouth piece for a powerful military backer or someone who was using her effectively as a front.”
James Hoare, who helped set up the British embassy in capital Pyongyang in 2001, said that if there was a “power struggle” it would be “ behind the scenes.”
He said the regime “would do its best to put on a united front” adding: “When Kim Il-sung died and Kim Jong-il died on both occasions it (the transition) went pretty smoothly.”
Mr Hoare added: “In theory it would be his sister. She looks to be in the first position – however she is there because of her brother not because of anything she has done herself.
“And she has no obvious power base which will go against her along with her age and gender.”
The former diplomats both agree that if Kim dies, the regime will be maintained by the ruthless elites within the government and the military.
WHO WILL TAKE OVER?
Mr Hoare said: “I don't think there is any danger of it falling because the alternative for the elites is South Korea coming in and removing them.”
There has been speculation that North Korea may attempt to cover up Kim's death, something the historian thinks is unlikely,
He believes the regime would follow a similar route as 2011, when they waited 51 hours to announce the death of leader Kim Jong-il while they hatched a transition plan.
“They would not make an immediate announcement until everything was sorted out.
“And then whoever took over would do some more sorting out which is what we saw with Kim Jong-un who killed high ranking members like his uncle who was pictured right next to him beside his father's coffin at the funeral,” he said.
But what would happen to Kim's wife Ri Sol-ju – who has shunned the limelight while producing at least two children for the dictator.
Mr Henderson, who helped establish diplomatic relations between the UK and North Korea in the 1990s, said she “ could be presented as a vision of continuity, the mourning bride, the mother of his children…”
He continued: “And that figure head could be maintained because that vision of the virtuous maternal is essential to this dynastic succession myth.
“However, if those who take over see her as a risk then she will literally be history.”
Mr Hoare agrees that Ri would either be maintained because of her children or be “very vulnerable” after Kim's death.
He said: “It is likely she would be sent off into some kind of house arrest and there wouldn't be any public charge. They would just do it. Get her out of the way. But that would depend on who took over.”
The ex-diplomat, who spent nearly two years living in Pyongyang, believes Kim's children would also be “vulnerable.”
He said: “Princes in the towers springs to mind. Small children can't rule so someone rules in their place, so they are vulnerable, yes.”
Kim Pyong-il – the half brother of Kim Jong-il – has sensationally returned to the rogue state after spending 30 years living overseas as a diplomat.
There is now speculation that he could seize power, with the country's biggest ally China reportedly favouring the experienced politician.
Mr Henderson, now an academic at the Henry Jackson Society, believes Pyong-il may be have been ordered back from exile because the regime do not want him "setting up as an alternative leader whose far away from control."
He insists it's entirely likely Kim's uncle will be "locked up" in the coming months.
Mr Hoare said when Kim Jong-il was dying, certain things would start to change in the country such as the television would only play sombre music.
He said: “I've contacted someone I know in Pyongyang over the weekend and he said nothing had changed."
But how much does the average North Korean know about their leader's heath? Very little is the answer, according to the ex-FCO envoy.
He said: “When I started the embassy in North Korea, one of the first gentle inquiries I received was 'does the leader have any children?'.
“They had heard stories that the leader had a family but they weren't sure.”
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