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Kim Jong... Ill?

Photos of North Korea's Kim Jong Il have drawn attention over the years for many reasons, one of the more memorable snapshots having turned up on the cover of the Economist about nine years ago, showing a rotund Kim, with his trademark bouffant hairdo, raising his hand in a half salute. In that case, the best part was the caption: "Greetings, Earthlings."

But recent footage, aired by North Korean state television, has been getting more attention than anything yet -- showing, or so it seems, Kim Jong Il near death's door. The once round Kim is gaunt, his once-thick hair is thin. He is reported to walk with a limp, and believed to have had a stroke last summer. This past Monday, South Korean media began reporting that according to unnamed Chinese and South Korean intelligence sources, Kim is suffering from pancreatic cancer.

With a possible transition of power in North Korea as context, I've put down some thoughts about this in my column this week for Forbes.com, "Dear Leader, Dead Leader?" -- urging, and not for the first time, that America's best bet for coping with North Korea's murderous, WMD-loving, global racketeering, nuclear extortionist regime is to stop trying to negotiate with these guys, and undermine them entirely. We used to call it "regime change," and as a policy for coping with predatory totalitarian governments, it has an excellent record -- from World War II, to the Soviet collapse, to -- yes -- Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

One of the great weaknesses of totalitarian governments is that they have no clear procedure for handing off power. Because the rules morph with the whim of the ruler, transitions happen by way of power struggles, fraught with internal instability. Will Kim be succeeded by his 26-year-old son, Kim Jong Un? By his 63-year-old brother-in-law, Chang Song Taek? By a North Korean variation on Burma's junta? These are some of the guesses topping the list. But chances are that even Kim's hairdresser doesn't know for sure.

For that matter, it isn't even confirmed that Kim has cancer. North Korea is a country in which even the ruler's birth date isn't clear. Officially, Kim is 67 years old, born in 1942 on the sacred Mount Paektu. Unofficially, he is believed to be 68, born in 1941 in Russia. He rules over a system which tested a ballistic missile in April, but advertised it as the launch of a satellite which had gone into orbit broadcasting tunes of glory about Kim and his late father -- which was all very interesting, except there was no satellite.