The launch of the long-rang Unha-3 rocket, with a range of over 10,000 kilometers, on Dec. 12 showed that the communist country has the basic capability to build an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States. Condemned by the international community, the launch has been widely heralded within the North as a triumph of the country's scientific prowess and strong leadership, and effectively bolstered Kim's stature among his citizenry. Kim took control of the country after the sudden death of his father Kim Jong-il in late 2011.
North Korean watchers said that Pyongyang and Kim are clearly elated by the Unha-3's success, with reports claiming it was a landmark in Korea's history and would bolster the country's standing among nations.
They said the leadership is moving to capitalize on this accomplishment and use the confidence it built to make changes in policies, including those governing relations with South Korea and the United States.
Yang Moo-jin, a political science professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, speculated that Pyongyang seems to be focusing more on improving the everyday lives of its people.
"The North is emphasizing the economy and toning down its belligerent rhetoric," he said.
The expert speculated that the country may seek tangible economic gains instead of pursing policies that build up its military, which can strain relations with the South and rest of the world.
This view has been supported by Kim's New Year Address that highlighted the importance of economic growth and improved inter-Korean relations.
Kim Jong-un (Yonhap file photo)
Kim, in his message broadcast, called for ceaseless improvements in economic management and the putting into practice various knowhow (related to the economy) gained by frontline managers and leaders.
North Korea's state-controlled media, in addition, has openly attacked the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration for the lack of progress in cross-border relations, but has generally refrained from criticizing President-elect Park Geun-hye. Articles carried by Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers' Party of (North) Korea, called on Seoul to follow through on past agreements that could lead to improvements in North-South ties.
"Because North Korean media mirrors the view of the leadership, the generally cautious stance towards Park can be seen as a sign that Pyongyang is waiting to see what the new administration will do," said a unification ministry official who declined to be identified.
He also pointed out that the North Korean press has been tame in its saber-rattling and lashing out against the United States, a sign that it wants to improve relations with the superpower.
This assessment was shared by Choi Dae-seok, a Ewha Womans University professor and member of Park's power transition team. The scholar said the North seems to be sending positive singles recently.
The recent visit by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt to the reclusive nation can be seen as a move to improve the communist country's negative image abroad.
Despite such measures, experts said likely actions to censure the North for its rocket launch and persistent demands to give up its nuclear ambitions could pose new challenges in dealing with North Korea.
Yang said the severity of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) may influence North Korea's future course of action, although he did not think it would cause a shift in Pyongyang's recent emphasis on strengthening its economy.
Because of the need to improve its weak economy, some North Korean observers claimed the country will refrain from testing another nuclear device.
"Although the president-elect wants to improve ties with the North, she has made clear that Seoul cannot accept Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program," a researcher at a state-run think tank said.
The 60-year-old Park said Thursday that Seoul will not tolerate the North's nuclear ambitions and future provocations will result in firm counter measures.
Meanwhile, government officials and diplomats said that talks should begin soon within the UNSC on how to penalize the North for its latest rocket launch.
Washington and Seoul have been pressuring Beijing, an ally of North Korea, on this issue for the last month, with the Chinese likely to accept holding talks.
In particular, the United States has taken a hard-line stance on the launch and is pushing for tougher measures. Washington can also implement its own sanctions against the North, independent of the U.N., with the European Union, Japan and South Korea likely to follow suit.
President-elect Park Geun-hye's power transition committee chief Kim Yong-joon (R) speaks before the defense ministry reports on policy measures currently being taken to bolster's the country's security on Jan. 11, 2013. (Yonhap)
In the case of South Korea, any sanctions imposed by the international community and the United States will be implemented by the incoming Park administration, which is fueling interest on how Seoul will cope with the North down the line.
So far, members of Park's power transition team have not made known their views or interfered in measures being contemplated by the government on the sanction issue, government officials said.
Officials assigned to brief the president-elect's aides said the incoming administration seems to be keeping a "strategic distance" from the sanction agenda that could prevent it from implementing its own policies when external conditions change.
"There seems to be a sense that the rocket launch took place during President Lee's term in office and that he should handle it," a source, who declined to be identified, said. He pointed out that there is a good chance that the UN will decide on what action it will take before Park takes office on Feb. 25, so there is little need for the newly elected president to focus on this matter right now.
He said the next government will probably approach the North Korean issue based on what international actions have been taken.