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updated 12/25/2011 11:31:36 AM ET 2011-12-25T16:31:36

The Obama administration's cautious response to the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il reflects unease and uncertainty about the leadership transition in the reclusive country that has confounded U.S. presidents for 60 years.

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North Korea, 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 in 2009, President Barack Obama has had to deal with North Korea at perhaps its most secretive point: an unclear succession amid a time of deep concern about the stability of the regime.

Thus, the administration's carefully worded public messages have underscored its desire for better relations with the autocratic nation and its concern about the welfare of the North Korean people. They are also gentle reminders that Washington expects Pyongyang to follow through on denuclearization pledges and improve ties with its neighbors, particularly South Korea.

The kid-gloves treatment accorded to the North's youthful new leader, Kim's twenty-something son Kim Jong Un, 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 on the opaque transition process and fearful of misunderstandings that could lead to provocations with the notoriously erratic North, U.S. officials have concluded the best course is to say little, wait and watch.

Indeed, the administration's initial reactions to Kim's death have contained little substance at all.

"All I can say is that we're monitoring the situation closely," White House press secretary Jay Carney said 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."

Those comments echoed words from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. On Monday, more than 16 hours after Kim's death was announced, she was the first senior U.S. official to comment publicly, calling for "a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea" and expressing hope that it would not affect "regional peace and stability."

Ironically, it was Clinton who first stirred the pot about a possible succession crisis in North Korea.

Nearly three years ago, on her first trip to Asia as secretary of state, she stunned diplomatic circles with a frank appraisal of U.S. concerns amid speculation about the health of Kim Jong Il, who had suffered a stroke in 2008, and his choice of a successor.

"If there is a succession, even if it's a peaceful succession, that creates more uncertainty and it also may encourage behaviors that are even more provocative as a way to consolidate power within the society," Clinton told reporters on Feb. 20, 2009.

Her remarks on a previously taboo subject sparked great debate. In Seoul the next day, she expressed surprise at the uproar, noting that reports of Kim choosing his youngest son Kim Jung Un to succeed him had "been in the news for months."

"I don't think that it's a forbidden subject to talk about succession in the hermit kingdom," Clinton said. "In fact, it seems to me it's got to be factored into any policy review that one is undertaking."

That same month, U.S. diplomats were scrambling to collect any information they could about Kim Jong Un from South Korean, Chinese and Japanese officials and experts, according to leaked State Department cables published by WikiLeaks.

Unfortunately for the Americans, their interlocutors had sharply divided opinions, according to the cables. Some predicted the North Korean regime would collapse politically within two to three years of Kim Jong Il's death. Others foresaw a power struggle between the young and untested Kim Jong Un and rivals in the elite, but differed over who would prevail. Others believed there would be little change.

One apparent area of convergence, however, was that most South Korean experts believed the challenge for the younger Kim would come after his father's death.

Before Kim's passing, the U.S. administration had been expected this week to announce the resumption in food aid to North Korea and a potential bilateral meeting on nuclear disarmament. Although the State Department said there had been brief exchange with North Korean officials in New York on Monday, both initiatives are now in flux pending the end of the North's mourning period.

The administration says it is respecting that mourning period by understanding that North Korean officials will not be available for discussions. Yet it has steadfastly refused to express any sympathy for the death of Kim, whose Stalinist regime is accused of having one of the worst, if not the worst, human rights records in the world.

While showering the late Czech democracy leader Vaclev Havel with effusive eulogies, American officials have refused to even utter the word "condolence" in relation to Kim.

EDITOR'S NOTE — Matthew Lee covers international affairs and U.S. foreign policy for The Associated Press.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Kim Jong Il through the years

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  1. Happy family

    Kim Jong Il as a child with his father Kim Il Sung and first wife Kim Jong Suk. (Noboru Hashimoto / Corbis Sygma) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Young student

    A1963 photo from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, Kim Jong Il when he was a student of Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. With his friends

    Kim Jong Il, second person from right, takes part of a souvenir picture with his friends in this undated photo. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Official business

    In his young days working at the Central Committee of WPK (Worker's Party of Korea). (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Training exercise

    Kim Jong Il leads the firearms training of the February 2nd National Sport Defense team members while he was working at the Central Committee of WPK (Worker's Party of Korea). (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Meeting with farmers

    Kim Jong Il talks with farmers when he was in the Central Committee, May 21, 1971. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Test drive

    Kim Jong Il takes a test drive of a play equipment combat plane in Taesong amusement park, Pyongyang in North Korea,Oct. 2, 1977. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Filmmaking

    Kim Jong Il gives advice at the shooting of "An Jung Geun Avenges Hirobumi Ito," a narrative film. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Father and son

    Kim Jong Il was anointed successor to his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1980. Known as the "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung and his son are shown attending a Korean Worker's Party convention in October of that year. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Family portrait

    Kim Jong Il, bottom left, poses memebers of his family in this 1981 photo in Pyongyang, North Korea. Sitting at right is his son, Jong-Nam, Kim's sister-in-law Sung Hye-Rang stands at top left with her daughter Lee Nam-Ok, center and son Lee Il-Nam, top right. While virtually nothing is known about the leader's personal life, an attempt by his first-born son Kim Jong Nam, bottom right, to enter Japan on a false passport in May, 2001, briefly shone a light onto his family's private dealings. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Applause please

    Kim Jong Il meets with Korean People's Army personnel in this Sept., 1988, photo. North Korea is believed to be the most heavily militarized country in the world on a per capita basis. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Like father, like son

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Il stands next to his father, Kim Il Sung, inspecting a football field in Pyongyang. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Silent famine

    Residents of Taziri, North Korea, wait for Red Cross food supplies in December 1995, not long after the death of Kim Il Sung left Kim Jong Il in control of the country. At the time, around 130,000 North Koreans were reportedly on the brink of famine and 500,000 were homeless. (Calvi Parisetti / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Kim looking at things

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Il inspects cucumbers harvested inside the 770th army base near Nyon Won power plant in Pyonan-Namdo. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Frenemies?

    South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, right, hugs North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the end of their summit meeting at the airport in Pyongyang, North Korea. The two leaders held historic talks for three days in June 2000. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A visitor from Russia

    Kim Jong Il walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, as he arrived in Pyongyang in July 2000 for talks on halting North Korea's missile-development program. (Itar-tass / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Toasting the U.S.

    Kim Jong Il toasts U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a dinner in Pyongyang in October 2000. The visit was part of an coordinated effort by Washington and its allies South Korea and Japan to end the country's isolation. (Chien-min Chung / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A giant leader

    A portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il displayed at an entrance of the foreign ministry in Pyongyang August 2002. (Shingo Ito / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Welcoming Japan

    Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, left, shakes hands with Kim Jong Il after signing a joint statement at the end of a one-day summit in Pyongyang on Sept. 17, 2002. North Korea admitted to kidnapping Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s and using them to train spies. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crowds in the square

    In January 2003, more than one million people gathered on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang to hear political leaders hail North Korea's dramatic decision to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Tearful goodbyes

    Emotional South Koreans bid farewell to their North Korean families following a brief reunion in July 2004. The families were separated by the border that was imposed after fighting ended in 1953. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. X marks the spot

    A South Korean protester holds a picture of Kim Jong Il marked with a cross during a rally in Seoul on July 7, 2006. Demonstrators denounced Pyongyang's test-firing of seven missiles. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Wining and dining

    South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun joins Kim Jong Il at a farewell lunch in Pyongyang on Oct. 4, 2007, after the two sides signed a pledge to seek a peace treaty to replace the 54-year-old cease-fire that ended the Korean War. With no treaty in place, the two countries technically are still at war. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Military matters

    Kim Jong Il visits a military unit in this picture released by North Korea's official news agency on Aug. 11, 2008. It was Kim's last public appearance before intelligence officials suggested he had fallen gravely ill. (KCNA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. In the public eye again

    In this image taken from North Korea's KRT state television, Kim Jong II attends the first session of the Supreme People's Assembly on April 9, 2009, in Pyongyang. It was his first major public appearance since reportedly suffering a stroke in August 2008. (APTN) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Paying his respects

    A gaunt-looking Kim Jong Il, sitting center in the front row, is surrounded by high-ranking officials during a ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of his father's death on July 8, 2009. Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea, remains known as the country's"eternal president." (KCNA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Visit from Clinton

    Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, right, meets with Kim Jong Il, left front, in Pyongyang on Aug. 4, 2009. North Korea pardoned and released two detained U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, after the meeting. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Calling on a cotton farm

    Kim Jong Il inspects a cotton plant farm of the Korean People's Army's 1596 unit on Nov. 29, 2009. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Meet-and-greet

    Kim Jong Il waves as people including soldiers applaud during a visit to the construction site of the Kumyagang Army-People Power Station in South Hamgyong Province in an undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency in August, 2010. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. China visit

    Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, meets with Kim Jong Il in Changchun, in northeast China's Jilin province, on Aug. 27, 2010. (Ju Peng / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Likely heir

    North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il, seated at center in sunglasses, and his youngest son Kim Jong Un, seated at left, pose for a photo with the newly elected members of the central leadership body of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) and the participants in the WPK Conference, at the plaza of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang in this picture released by the North's KCNA news agency on Sept. 30, 2010. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il anointed his youngest son as successor this week, promoting him to senior political and military positions. (KCNA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (2nd L) and his youngest son Kim Jong Un (3rd R from Kim Jong-il) visit the cemetery for Chinese soldiers who died during the 1950-53 Korean War in Hoechang County, North Korea, Oct. 26, 2010, in this picture released by North Korea's official KCNA news agency. (KCNA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. North Korea leader Kim Jong Il, right, and his son Kim Jong Un attend a massive military parade to mark the 65th anniversary of the communist nation's ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea on Oct. 10, 2010. Kim Jong Il, North Korea's mercurial and enigmatic leader whose iron rule and nuclear ambitions dominated world security fears for more than a decade, has died. He was 69. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Pass in review

    Kim Jong Il attends a military parade to celebrate the 63rd founding anniversary of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in Pyongyang on September 9, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A tearful announcer dressed in black announces the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong il on North Korean State Television on Dec. 19, 2011. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died on a train trip, state television reported on Monday, sparking immediate concern over who is in control of the reclusive state and its nuclear program. The announcer said the 69-year old had died on Saturday of physical and mental over-work on his way to give "field guidance". (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. The body of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is seen inside a glass coffin as people pay their respects, Pyongyang, North Korea, on Dec. 20, 2011. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. ARCHIVES : KIM IL SUNG AND KIM JONG IL
    Noboru Hashimoto / Corbis Sygma
    Above: Slideshow (36) The life of Kim Jong ll - Kim Jong Il through the years
  2. Image:
    KCNA via AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (42) The life of Kim Jong ll - World reacts
  3. Daryl Cagle / MSNBC.com, Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (30) The life and death of Kim Jong Il
  4. Image:
    David Guttenfelder / AP
    Slideshow (53) Journey into North Korea

Video: UN observes moment of silence for Kim Jong Il

Interactive: Meet North Korea’s first family

The North Korean dictatorship established by Kim Il Sung after World War II was taken over by his son Kim Jong Il in the 1990s. Now, as Kim Jong Il’s health fails the power is apparently being formally handed to his eldest son Kim Jung Un. In addition, the Kim family holds dozens of powerful positions throughout the North Korean bureaucracy.

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