By Elise Labott
In some ways, Kim Jong Il's death could not have come at a worse time for the United States.
Washington was seeing hopeful signs in a carefully orchestrated plan by the administration to engage the North Korean leadership. A success in bringing North Korea back to talking about its nuclear program would have given President Obama another foreign policy success to tout as he seeks re-election.
The initial meetings between the two sides, one as recently as last week, were promising. In offering some new food assistance to Pyongyang, the United States was reasonably assured the North would suspend its uranium enrichment program and resume operations to recover the remains of American soldiers missing in action from the Korean War.
American officials were hopeful that these modest steps would lead to a resumption of the long-stalled Six Party Talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
But this potential rapprochement has come to a screeching halt, at least while the North Korean people are engaged in their prerequisite mourning for the Dear Leader, and likely beyond that as the new North Korean leadership sorts out its new hierarchy.
Naturally, the biggest question is whether Kim Jong Un, the 20-something basketball sneaker-wearing son and heir apparent of the deceased leader, can step decisively into his father's shoes.
Reading the tea leaves about the reclusive North Korean leadership in the wake of Kim Jong Il's death, however, will be nothing short of Kremlinology for the 21st century. They don't call North Korea the "hermit kingdom" for nothing.
In the short term, the Obama administration is somewhat paralyzed. If it reaches out too quickly to embrace the "kid," as some U.S. officials call him, it can create fissures between him and the North Korean military, whose ranks have been anti-American and solidly against engagement with the outside world.
If Washington tries to spread its wings and reach out to others in the country, it can risk emasculating the new leader as he tries to consolidate his power base.
In reality, the United States alone will not make or break Kim Jong Un. His role in the family business will rest in large part on his ability to navigate potential power struggles, both with the military and with his aunt and her husband, Jang Song Thaek, who was elevated in the government last year and is expected to act as a caretaker of sorts until the younger Kim can take the reins.
But officials realize how the Obama administration plays its hand over the coming weeks and months can have a direct impact on the actions of the new government and how those actions affect America's national security interests.
Will the United States, along with its close ally South Korea, go into a defensive crouch, becoming passive and standoffish, causing the North Koreans to hunker down? Or will Washington explore openings with new leaders at an early date in pursuit of its many interests, including security, denuclearization, human rights and the North's relations with Seoul?
Obama's aides on North Korea represent the spectrum from realism to idealism.
The idealists are thinking North Korea is on the verge of its own Arab Spring, where its walls of tyranny are about to come crumbling down.
These officials believe Kim Jong Il's death has presented the kind of momentous once-in-a-generation moment that demands the United States do something big. White papers are flying through administration in-boxes like spit balls suggesting policy options, most of which officials acknowledge won't see the light of day.
But those pesky realists know this will take time, and are urging Obama not to over-think the potential impact and not to change the game plan too dramatically. While there will be a new leadership team, the realists know the North Korean "system" as a whole will likely remain unchanged for some time to come.
Despite the Swiss education of the "kid," North Korea is not Egypt or Tunisia. And one look at Bashar al-Assad, who was a London-trained ophthalmologist, and Saif Ghadafi, who studied in Vienna, show exposure to the West for dictators' offspring doesn't mean the younger generation will embrace all the West embodies.
Still, the changes taking place in North Korea do present an opportunity. During the transition, the United States expects North Korea to govern by committee. And those in the administration who have consistently argued that U.S. interests lie in engagement with Pyongyang believe it is now more important than ever to strengthen the elements within the country who are open to, if not eager for, reform.
It appears this camp has prevailed. A statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the North Korean people, carefully crafted during hours of inter-agency meetings, encourages the new North Korean leaders to "guide their nation on the path to peace." But it also sends a not-so-subtle message that the United States stands ready to re-engage and help the North Koreans on that path when they are ready.
Officials say that the administration has indeed taken the strategic decision to try to seize the opportunity that has arisen from Kim Jong Il's death by testing the waters of engagement, while staying true to U.S. goals and principles.
"The wide default setting," in the words of one senior official, "is to keep moving forward."
Still, officials are cautious. Initial signals from the North are encouraging, but not necessarily telling. U.S. and North Korean officials have had some initial contacts in the wake of Kim's death about the pending agreement on food assistance, but officials say they aren't even sure if Pyongyang's talking points were drafted before the Dear Leader's death or in the hours immediately following it. Regardless, they do not reflect a policy direction under the new leadership.
U.S. officials will be watching closely to see how things play out over the next week, including how much the young Kim Jong Un appears in public. If he continues to be seen frequently, that will be taken as a good sign of his confidence and will signal the country is stable. If he remains in the shadows, there will be concerns a power struggle is under way.
The United States will also be looking to see how the military responds over the coming days. At the first sign of instability, everyone will start worrying about what happens to North Korea's nuclear arsenal.
Coordination among U.S. partners in the region will also be key. The United States has been in lockstep with South Korea for some time on contingency plans for the transition, but until now China, arguably the country with the most information about and influence on North Korea, wouldn't go there for fear of appearing to be orchestrating the regime's collapse.
Political dynamics in the region will be as much of a wild card this year as North Korea's mysterious transition. South Korea, Russia and the United States each will undergo elections of their own. And Japan's fluid political situation has shown that a new prime minister could arise in Tokyo at anytime. Even the Chinese leadership will undergo a leadership transition late next year.
Every member of the Six Party Talks could potentially have a new regime, which injects an even higher degree of unpredictability into the situation with North Korea.
These new governments can offer flexibility and an opportunity to make adjustments. In the case of South Korea, a left-of-center government could increase engagement with Pyongyang, along the lines of former President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy."
But in the United States, it could mean a harder line. Although the Republican candidates haven't offered clear policy prescriptions for how they would deal with North Korea's new leadership, a GOP president is unlikely to continue with the same type of engagement espoused by Obama.
A hands-off approach by the United States, however, could be dangerous. North Korea is ever longing for attention from the United States, and a prolonged period without meaningful engagement from Washington could give the new leadership an incentive to do all sorts of things America doesn't like - starting with making, selling and even testing more nuclear weapons.