Will Kim Jong Il go out quietly, or with a (big) bang?
The North Korean dictator made just his second public appearance on Wednesday since he reportedly suffered a stroke last August, looking gaunt and with dramatically less hair than he had in April, when the 67-year-old Dear Leader presided over a parliamentary meeting in Pyongyang that saw him re-elected.
Speculation on Kim's health has skyrocketed since his latest appearance to honor his late father and the country's founder, Kim Il Sung. A source close to Kim's extended family has said that the leader is in the last months of his life.
"He does not have all that much longer to live and my sources say the doctors' diagnosis is that he will die before the end of the year," Waseda University Professor Toshimitsu Shigemura told the Daily Telegraph. "He is still being treated for the main problem, which is complications arising from diabetes, and it had been expected that he could die as soon as this summer."
But Kim's failing health won't likely lead to more erratic actions from the North Korean dictator, particularly as he continues to groom his youngest son, Kim Jon Un, as his successor, experts told FOXNews.com.
"Kim Jong Il would feel he'd let down his father's legacy if he went out with a real bang and launched a nuclear attack," said Charles Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There's too much at risk for his legacy and regime. If he does that, we know his number. We would retaliate."
Ferguson, who visited North Korea in 2000 while working for the State Department, said Kim's death could lead to "intense saber rattling" in the region, and he suggested that South Korea and Japan might feel the need to develop their own nuclear weapon programs.
"We could have an arms race," he said. "A real worst-case scenario would be a collapse of the regime and you'd have thousands if not millions of refugees going into South Korea."
Harlan Ullman, a distinguished senior fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, said he expects Kim will exit quietly when the time comes.
"My sense is that Kim is probably not going to have any kind of explosive farewell," Ullman told FOXNews.com. "What would an explosive going-away party be? Is it in their best interest?"
Ullman — one of the theorists behind the "shock and awe" military strategy used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq — said Kim's primary focus prior to his death will likely be to shore up support for his son.
Kim Jong Un may initially take an "honorary role," Ullman said, and be groomed over time to replace his father.
Whatever path the son takes, Ullman said it's unlikely it will follow a volatile exit by his father. The notion of a dangerous "last hurrah" should not be seriously entertained, he said.
"I don't think [Kim Jong Il] is looking to start World War III," Ullman said. "They'd lose. They'd do a hell of a lot of damage to South Korea, but at the end of the day, the regime would be gone and I think they realize that. Kim is more rational than we believe, even though he has an entirely different value system than what we understand."
North Korea conducted several banned ballistic missile tests last weekend, stoking international ire following the country's second nuclear test in late May, which led to severe U.N. sanctions.
"Looking at the events of the last several months, you could say that he's already concluded that the end is in sight and we may be seeing the 'going out with a bang phenomenon' right now," said Bob Joseph, a senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy. "This may be the bang."
Steve Emerson, executive director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism, said the "mysterious, enigmatic and irrational" leader has already finalized his legacy in some ways by his defiant actions during the past few months.
"He's been trying to get the attention of the West to show them that he's not scared, and he's achieved that," Emerson told FOXNews.com. "In his mind, the U.S. is a paper tiger."
Still, Kim's unpredictable health could fuel the fire in some ways, he said.
"Since he controls for all we know the button on the trigger, the less lucid he becomes, obviously the less stable he is and the more irrational he becomes," Emerson said. "His state of mind could be a lot less lucid."