"North Korea will try to improve its economic situation holding on to nuclear weapons as a way of deterring external threats," Scott Snyder, a senior researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency held in Seoul.
"But I think it is simply not possible to achieve the level of economic performance the leader needs and desires as long as (the country) holds on to the nuclear capability," he said.
Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, took the helm of the communist country in December upon his father Kim Jong-il's death.
Though the leader recognizes its serious economic problems and the need to resolve them for the regime's survival, there have not been "any tangible measures that have been taken to say that North Korea is actually embracing economic reform," the expert said, adding the North will make a "strategic choice when it exhausts all alternative pathways."
Snyder pointed to three sources of challenges for the new regime: the potential for backlash by military groups, yet-to-be-completed generational changes within the leadership and how to shift resource flows from the military to the cabinet.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (R) and his wife Ri Sol-ju watch a volleyball match at a gymnasium in Pyongyang. The (North) Korean Central News Agency released the photo on Nov. 7, 2012 but did not clarify when the match took place. (Yonhap file photo)
Though the six-way talks for the North's denuclearization have been deadlocked since 2008, Snyder said the parties - the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia -- "cannot abandon the talks."
"Neither the U.S. nor South Korea is going to abandon the objective of denuclearization," the expert said, while advising them to find ways of making progress on other important issues on North Korea.
"Real challenge is the scope of shared interests among the parties, and figuring out how to embed the nuclear issue in the broader context," he said.
Under the re-elected Obama administration, the U.S. will show "a broad continuity" in its approach to Pyongyang, but some changes are expected following the leadership change in South Korea.
The presidential election is due on Dec. 19. Incumbent President Lee Myung-bak's five-year term is set to end in February, and he cannot seek re-election by law.
"South Korea is more likely to pursue engagement, which means the U.S. has to make adjustments for its policy coordination with South Korea on the North Korean issues," he said, noting that three major candidates here are vowing efforts to improve inter-Korean relations and more engaged moves toward the communist neighbor.
Stressing "robust" relations between Seoul and Washington, however, the expert said he has "a confidence that the two governments should be able to manage differing views without much difficulty."
Assessing the U.S.-China relations as a "complicated one" with a mixture of "cooperation and competition," Snyder said President Obama has been making "unprecedented efforts" to work closely with China.
He said Seoul's policy interest is similar to that of the U.S. in terms of the Chinese factor and advised Seoul to pursue "a high-level consultative meeting with China."
"I believe the U.S. will very strongly support South Korea in the effort of engagement (in China), and it will not have a negative impact on the U.S.-South Korea relations."