N Korea may face succession challenge
Seoul - The shock announcement of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il's death has raised fears of turbulence in the nuclear-armed nation which has been plunged into a second dynastic succession.
Kim's youngest son Kim Jong-Un has been declared in state media as the nation's next leader but little is known about him or his path to power.
Following are some scenarios of how events might unfold.
What will happen now?
Kim Jong-Il's body is to lie in state in Kumsusan palace where the embalmed body of his father - Kim Il-Sung, the founder and "eternal leader" of North Korea who died in 1994 - is on display.
After Kim's funeral on December 28, thoughts will turn to the succession but there are few details as to how it will be carried out. Kim Jong-Un's status as heir apparent was only made clear in September 2010.
Even Kim Jong-Il, who was openly groomed for the leadership and designated as successor some 14 years before his own father died, did not formally take over the leadership of the ruling party for three years afterward.
Who is in charge?
The workings of the North Korean leadership - which managed to keep the leader's death a secret for two days - are notoriously opaque.
But all the signs so far are that Kim Jong-Un is being installed as the nation's new leader under the guidance of his aunt and uncle who will act as his mentors and as a backstop for a young man with no power base of his own.
Jang Song-Thaek, husband of Kim Jong-Il's only sibling Kim Kyong-Hui, expanded his influence rapidly after the leader had a stroke in 2008, forcing the succession plans to be accelerated.
What are the risks?
North Korea has a track record of erratic and aggressive behaviour which has alarmed its neighbours and the international community.
Some observers are fearful that the young leader, who has little public profile and no military experience despite being made a four-star general in 2010, may show his mettle with nuclear tests or military provocations.
Relations with South Korea have been icy since two deadly border incidents blamed on the North last year, which were rumoured to be linked to a show of force by Kim as he tried to ensure his son's succession.
Could North Korea implode?
Many experts believe that North Korea's elites have a powerful vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and that they are not likely to rock the boat unless they have to.
Analysts say turbulence is unlikely, at least in the short term. However, if Kim Jong-Un fails and a messy power struggle ensues, North Korea heads into uncharted territory.
In the meantime, the new leader, who comes into the job with a host of challenges including severe food shortages in a nation which has seen famine in the past, is not expected to adopt an ambitious agenda.
Why does North Korea matter?
North Korea is a formidable country, with some 1.19 million men under arms, as well as an arsenal of chemical and conventional weapons including thousands of short- and medium-range missiles.
It has also test-launched Taepodong missiles in its quest for an intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially strike as far as the US.
Most estimates say the North has enough plutonium to build six to eight atomic weapons, but it is unclear whether it can make nuclear warheads for its missiles.
Efforts to denuclearise North Korea through six-nation talks including the US and China have dominated regional diplomacy in recent years.
What will other countries do?
The North's main ally China is expected to do its utmost to shore up its isolated neighbour, amid fears Jong-Un has not had enough time to cement control over the country's government and military.
Beijing is worried that if the North Korea regime were to collapse, China could be flooded with millions of refugees.
Japan and South Korea's nervousness over the stunning news was reflected as Seoul put its military on alert and the government in Tokyo held an emergency security meeting.
The US made little immediate comment, but swiftly closed ranks with its ally South Korea, with US President Barack Obama calling his close friend President Lee Myung-Bak to discuss the development.