North Korea Projects Image of Stability as Questions Remain About Roles of New Leader, Military

Assessing the stability of North Korea in the wake of Kim Jong Il's death has been a matter of reading between the lines, but there are signs that the communist country's government is at least trying to project the appearance of a smooth transition.

Kim's son, the baby-faced twenty-something Kim Jong Un, is the presumed successor, raising questions about whether the country's military leadership will rally behind him, as it did behind his dictator father. In recent days, state media has disseminated images showing the younger Kim in the company of generals who supported Kim Jong Il.

The footage of the generals and Kim Jong Un, hailed as the military's "supreme commander," was shot on Saturday and shown on state TV on Sunday, as they paid their respects to the late leader.

A source in South Korea told Reuters that it also marked the first time that one of the country's more powerful behind-the-scenes player, Jang Song Thaek, was seen on state TV in a military uniform. Jang was Kim Jong Un's brother-in-law and his chief political lieutenant in recent years.

Another Reuters source suggested that the country was moving from strongman rule to government controlled by multiple leaders.

"Most of the top generals and key party leaders, their family ties with the Kims go back to World War II," Bruce Bechtol, director of the Center for Security Studies at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, told the Wall Street Journal.

The Journal also notes that the dictator in North Korea's government stands in the middle of three competing forces, the political party, the military and the state security department.

"I don't think anyone in the elite would try to grab power (from the dictator) because there is a well-established check-and-balance system. It would be suicidal," Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, told the Journal.

The ongoing shift of power poses new challenges for the Obama administration, which has reacted cautiously to Kim Jong Il's death.

For the past 60 years, the "hermit kingdom" has vexed the United States and its allies with war, nuclear tests, missile launches, belligerence and bellicose bombast. But since he took office, President Obama has had to deal with the country at perhaps its most secretive point: an unclear succession at the very top at a time of deep concern about the stability of the regime.

The kid gloves treatment accorded to the North's youthful new leader has attracted criticism from some who see this is a moment to make a forceful case for dramatic reform and regime change.

But without solid intelligence of the opaque transition process and fearful of misunderstandings that could lead to provocations with the notoriously erratic North, U.S. officials concluded that the best course is to say little, wait and watch.

"All I can say is that we're monitoring the situation closely," White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Wednesday as North Korean state media broadcast pictures of wailing mourners, apparently overcome with grief. "Kim Jong Il had designated Kim Jong Un as his official successor, and at this time we have no indication that that has changed."

Carney added: "We hope that the new North Korean leadership will take the steps necessary to support peace, prosperity and a better future for the North Korean people, including through acting on its commitments to denuclearization."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.