North Korea's ailing leader Kim Jong Il has laid the groundwork for a transition of power to his youngest son, but it remains to be seen if the reclusive nuclear-armed regime will soften its combative stance toward the international community.
The impoverished nation has long used both carrots and sticks to get what it wants: offering dialogue and promises to dismantle its nuclear program to get aid, and when it runs into resistance, conducting missile and atomic tests and threatening to destroy rival South Korea.
Analysts see little prospect of that strategy changing, and on Wednesday, a top North Korean official told delegates to the United Nations that Pyongyang would continue to expand its nuclear arsenal in order to deter what it perceives as American and South Korean aggression in the region.
Despite such volatile rhetoric, some experts speculate that the North might start to seek a period of calm — after a turbulent past two years — to minimize confrontation with the outside world as it enters a time of transition in its top ranks.
This week's elevation of Kim Jong Il's youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to a four-star general and to a key position in the ruling communist party at a political convention signaled that the little-known 20-something is on track to eventually succeed his 68-year-old father, believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008.
Underscoring Kim Jong Il's intent to consecrate his family's dominance and usher the dynasty into a third generation was the promotion of his 64-year-old sister, Kim Kyong Hui. She is married to another key member of the North's ruling elite, Jang Song Thaek.
Those two figures could help smooth the transition for Kim Jong Un, who remains a virtual unknown — unmentioned even in North Korean state media until this week. He is believed to be in his late 20s, to have studied in Switzerland and have a fondness for NBA basketball.
The North Korean media provided no hints of what kinds of discussions may have taken place at Tuesday's party convention — the country's biggest political gathering since the 1980 anointing of Kim Jong Il as successor to his father, the nation's founder Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994.
Gauging what is happening in the opaque regime is notoriously difficult, but what is clear is that North Korea faces huge problems: chronic poverty that leaves it reliant on foreign aid to feed its 24 million people, and a stricken economy with apparently unresolved questions about whether to embrace or shun free markets.
Despite its impoverishment, North Korea has active nuclear and missile programs that are the key focus of security concerns in Northeast Asia. The United States stations close to 30,000 troops in South Korea, which remains in a technical state of war with the North after their 1950-53 conflict ended with a truce and not a formal peace treaty.
On Wednesday in a speech before the United Nations in New York, North Korea's Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Pak Kil Yon said his government would continue to build its atomic stockpile, though it was also ready to join nuclear nonproliferation efforts in its capacity as a nuclear weapon state.
"As long as the U.S. nuclear aircraft carriers sail around the seas of our country, our nuclear deterrent can never be abandoned but should be strengthened further," Pak said. "This is the lesson we have drawn."
Pyongyang has used its military assets and its unpredictability to get what it wants internationally in the past — a strategy it is likely to stick to.
"The best way to squeeze aid from the outside world is to use contradictions between the great powers and a bit of nuclear blackmail," said Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea at Seoul's Kookmin University. "This is absolutely a rational policy, and it has worked quite fine for the last few decades, and I don't see that they would ever consider changing it in the near future."
Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University in Seoul, said he believes no major changes are in store but added that the country will likely enter into a period of seeking to tone down tensions in order to focus on stabilizing the succession.
"They'll think it's more urgent to smoothly settle down the succession process rather than having another adventure," 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.
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 U.S. — 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 has already expressed its willingness to rejoin the disarmament talks but Washington has said the North must first take specific moves to demonstrate its sincerity.
Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee, Kwang-tae Kim, Hyung-jin Kim and Sangwon Yoon in Seoul and Ali Akbar Dareini in New York contributed to this report.