“They’ll think it’s more urgent to smoothly settle down the succession process rather than having another adventure,” Mr. Yoo said.
North Korea has been embroiled in a standoff with South Korea over the March sinking of a South Korean naval vessel that killed 46 sailors. An international investigation led by Seoul concluded a North Korean torpedo was to blame, although Pyongyang denies it.
Mr. Yoo predicted the North would seek to improve ties with the United States and return to six-party talks aimed at getting the North to dismantle its nuclear programs. Pyongyang pulled out of the talks — which also include South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the United States — after an international uproar last year over a suspected long-range missile test it conducted, which was followed by the country’s second nuclear test.
North Korea already has expressed its willingness to rejoin the disarmament talks, but Washington has said the North must first take specific moves to demonstrate its sincerity.
“The North wants to improve relations with the U.S., as it is a must for it to revive its economy,” said Chon Hyun-joon, a research fellow at the state-run Korean Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “But it won’t make a unilateral surrender, and it wants to get concessions in return for positive steps.”
North Korea has set an objective of achieving the status of a “powerful and prosperous nation” by 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung.
But its economy has hit the skids since the collapse of the Soviet Union robbed it of a key source of aid and ensuing economic mismanagement and natural disasters made conditions worse.
It desperately needs reform, but Mr. Lankov said the North Korean leadership knows that path is risky and thus will continue doing what it does best: alternating between threats and concessions to secure economic benefits to help shore up the regime.
“It’s rational politics because they cannot afford Chinese-style reform,” he said. “In their particular case, reforms are likely to lead to instability, domestic instability.”
Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee, Kwang-tae Kim, Hyung-jin Kim and Sangwon Yoon contributed to this report.