By Jamie Crawford
As a late twenty-something with no formal military experience of his own takes the reins of power over a cadre of octogenarian generals and a one-million man plus military, North Korea watchers are somewhat divided over the direction Kim Jong Un will ultimately take the hermetic country.
The North's propoganda machine is already in full rallying mode. A New Year's Day message released by the official Korean Central News Agency vowed to stand behind the new leader and defend him "unto death."
For its part, the United States is waiting for the new regime to make the next move. Any decision on moving forward with discussions over issues such as food aid and their nuclear program will have to wait.
"I don't think there's any substantive change from where we were just before the new year," State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said recently, "which is that we're waiting to hear from the North Korean side."
With governments and experts alike reading the tea leaves of what the future on the Korean peninsula may hold, there are some early signs and questions to keep an eye on as to how things may bear out.
'A house united until ...'
As political and dynastic successions go, most experts say the transition underway in North Korea is going exactly the way Kim Jong Il wanted. A sense of continuity for the Kim family appears to be holding.
And while Kim Jong Il had 20 years to grow into a leadership role before his father and country's founder Kim Il Sung died, Kim Jong Un was essentially limited to a 20-month apprenticeship.
While a regency overseen by Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, seems to have been established to assist the new young leader's transition to power, a concerted effort has been underway in recent days to showcase the younger Kim meeting with generals, visiting factories and basically putting on a show for the outside world of just who is in charge.
"I think all these very overt efforts to put Kim Jong Un up in front is actually a sign that they are trying to rush this transition process to try and establish him as quickly as they can," said Victor Cha, a former National Security official on Asian affairs in the Bush administration, told CNN in an interview.
As the generals all have a stake in the eventual outcome of the transition, its unlikely any open rebellion to the elevation of Kim will take place in the near term. But Douglas Paal, a longtime analyst on Asian affairs with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says a possible fissure within the branches of the North Korean military could rupture and provide an early test for the younger Kim.
"I've heard from diplomats who have been stationed in Pyongyang that the air force and navy are not at all pleased with the way the army has been developing nuclear weapons when they are starved for airplanes and ships," Paal told CNN.
While the military will likely focus on maintaining stability in the short term, a continued deterioration of air and naval assets at the expense of the nuclear program could become a problem for the new leader.
"That kind of thing might start dividing the house inside the military," Paal said, "and then they start nudging the new leader to make different kinds of decisions, that will affect people's interests and then things could very quickly unwind."
'A tale of two economies'
For years, North Korea has been run on a dual-tiered system of two separate economies. "You have the royal court economy which consists of the senior military and party officials," said John Park, a research fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Completely overseen and run by the military elites in North Korea, the generals maintain their own networks of state trading companies to generate their own revenue and personal income so they may bribe other government officials and maintain their status in the hierarchy, Park says.
With their latest 3G cellular technology and well-fed families, the royal court economy is a cruel study in contrasts with the other North Korean economy at large, Park says. The beleaguered general economy that services the remaining 99% of North Koreans have been generally left on the margins in the 'workers paradise' by the elite. They eke out a difficult existence often marked by a scarcity of food, or outright famine.
Kim Jong Il was quite adept at managing the royal court economy and playing the generals off one another as a way of maintaining his hold on power but to also assure his own cut of the money from these companies. Going forward, Park says, it will be important to see whether Kim Jong Un emerges from the "cocoon" of leadership Kim Jong Il devised before his death to guide his son through his learning curve, with an interest to preserve and maintain the separate royal court economy, without altering the status quo.
"It doesn't look like [Kim Jong Un] has the skill set yet," Park told CNN. "So everything I think really revolves around this whole notion of whether the cocoon will be able to carry out its job of continuing the development of Kim Jong Un as the full fledged leader," he said.
In actuality, the younger Kim has already made decisions that highlight his inexperience and led to disastrous effects on the economy.
In December 2009, Kim Jong Un advocated for a revaluation of the country's currency, the research group Rand said in a report last month. That policy caused the price of a kilogram of rice to rise tenfold in just two months. Confidence in Kim's leadership abilities, even among the elites, was questioned after such rapid inflation.
Regardless of his position as heir to the third generation of the Kim dynasty, the importance of Kim's eventual management of this economy cannot be overstated.
"He has to be able to make money on a recurring basis to buy and maintain the loyalty of senior figures around him and maintain his regime," Park says. "If he isn't able to generate those funds on a regular basis, it doesn't matter what other attributes exist on his [resume], he has to deliver."
'The nuclear question'
North Korea has been an international pariah for years through its placement on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism and following two separate attacks in 2010 that led to the deaths of 50 South Koreans.
Its membership in the club of nuclear-armed nations, announced through separate tests in 2006 and 2009, drew the ire of the United States and other powerful countries. What happens with North Korea's nuclear program is a subject of uncertainty and apprehension on the part of many who study the country.
To be sure, there have been no indications in these early days of the transition that the new regime is any more inclined to give them up through some show of international goodwill. If anything, recent statements from the North have shown it intends to keep its arsenal as a hedge against any perceived aggression from South Korea.
In a response to a recent overture from South Korean President Lee Myung-bak offering a "window of opportunity" for dialogue between the two nations, the North Korean regime made certain its capabilities were still acknowledged.
"As long as the enemy is persistent in his moves for aggression, the DPRK will further reinforce the position of the nuclear-weapons state to protect its dignity and sovereignty," the North's Committee for Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement carried by the state news agency. It was the first statement from the North that mentioned its nuclear program since the death of Kim Jong Il.
North Korea has maintained a belligerent stance toward the South since the conservative Lee government ended the previous 'Sunshine policy' that provided most aid without conditions.
The last round of nuclear tests in 2009 produced such a small explosion that many experts in the field questioned if a nuclear blast had even occurred.
Such doubt could provide an opening for a new regime looking to assert itself to the rest of the world and put to rest any questions about the effectiveness of its program.
"I'm quite concerned that the nuclear problem is not going to get any easier," says Cha, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's going to actually become more difficult now, and have additional dimensions to it that it didn't have before."
Before his death last month, Kim Jong Il's regime had the appearance of possibly reopening some of its nuclear facilities to international inspectors in exchange for food assistance from the United States. That process is on hold as the U.S. and other governments await a signal of intention from the new regime on the way forward with respect to the nuclear program.
In the meantime, questions are arising about the safety and security of the North's existing nuclear arsenal under the new power structure.
Paal, with the Carnegie Endowment, advocates for secret talks between the United States and China about what would be done under certain unforeseen circumstances with respect to the nuclear arsenal.
If a civil war beyond Kim's control broke out between two factions of the military, who would gain control of the nuclear weapons and what assurances would there be that they did not fall into the wrong hands?
Such discussions with China could help plan for a scenario where a team of U.S. special forces possibly moves in to secure the stockpile. Such conversations are needed, Paal says, to prevent misunderstandings on either side. They would also reassure Beijing in advance that any such operation would be quick and not lead to a permanent basing of U.S. troops at the Chinese border.
"The Obama administration should seek to deepen this opening as soon as possible," Paal said of the need for quick and quiet talks between the two countries. "And I hope none of us hear about it."
'What about China?'
North Korea's relationship with its greatest benefactor and neighbor, China, is likely to only deepen with the new regime experts say. In short, both need each other.
In recent years, China has signed large commercial mining agreements with North Korea to extract minerals from the North in order to be brought to China's northeastern provinces. That's an important economic relationship that China will likely want to maintain.
Then there is the political relationship between the two countries.
In the hours that followed the announcement of Kim Jong Il's death, it was China's president, Hu Jintao, who released the first international statement voicing support for the new leader in North Korea. That was no accident.
China fears any sort of instability inside North Korea that could lead to an eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula that sets up a potential U.S. ally right on its border.
"I think the Chinese will come out and have very high level officials reaffirm that North Korea is running smoothly," Harvard's Park told CNN. "That is the message that if the Chinese don't support, it really creates more room for speculation and concern of potential sudden instability in North Korea."
China did extend an invitation for a visit to the new leader in the context of the transition. A visit to China by Kim in the near term could send an early signal of whether he is ready to represent his country on the world stage or whether there will be an inward turn by the regime away from foreign policy.
"Overdependence on China might not necessarily be a formula for strong leadership in North Korea," Scott Snyder with the Council on Foreign Relations told CNN. "At same time, there is no question that the ability to sustain a flow of economic benefits from China is probably a critical factor in supporting the durability of the current regime."
A riddle wrapped in an enigma
Kim Jong Il's death was such a closely held secret that it evaded U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies and was not known to the world until an announcement was made on state television. What specifically has transpired inside North Korea has been a riddle that has perplexed governments for years.
"This is a big intelligence challenge, especially because the key conversations are probably taking place at very high levels even kind of within the family," Snyder said.
If there are events taking place beneath the surface, such as a potential challenge or effort to undermine Kim's ability to govern, the United States and its allies will likely still be faced with the same challenge.
"It means almost by definition the United States and others are going to be following reactive foreign policies rather than having much of an opportunity to shape the environment in which the North Korean leadership transition consolidates itself," Snyder said.