Some North Korean experts say now is time for U.S. to boost engagement.

The Takeaway

The death of Kim Jong-Il was concealed not only from his own people but also from the entire world, including those with high-priced spy agencies like the CIA and elaborate listening posts like the ones found in South Korea.

It points to just how hard it is to predict what will happen next in North Korea, perhaps the single most isolated country anywhere in the world.

Karin Lee, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea, said among those who follow North Korea, herself included, no one really knows what’s going on.

“It is very difficult to predict what’s going to be the next steps that North Korea will take,” she said.

Bob Egan, owner of Cubby’s Barbeque in Hackensack, N.J., and author of “Eating With the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My BBQ Shack in Hackensack,” has visited the reclusive country over the past 17 years and takes a slightly different perspective.

“This is an opportunity. We know what’s going on in North Korea. There’s repression. There’s starvation. Right now there’s political unrest,” Egan said. “One man doesn’t lead that nation. It’s a Stalinistic regime.”

Lee said most people are turning their attention to Kim Jong Un, the son of Kim Jong Il, who is expected to succeed his father, officially once the national period of mourning ends. There’s also the possibility that he will rule under the guidance of a regent, expected to be a close relative of Kim Jong Il, perhaps his brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek.

“From the political perspective, that’s where we think the leadership is going to take place,” she said.

Egan said he hopes the United States uses this an opportunity to aggressively re-engage with leaders in North Korea.

“I suggest we put an embassy in Pyongyang, we send an ambassador over there and a staff, and start developing relationships to their military through the foreign ministry,” Egan said. “That’s the only route to try to sort our the different people in line for the succession to power.”

Egan said he visited with North Koreans at the mission to the United Nations on Monday and they were as clueless as the Americans as to who would ascend to powerful positions.

Lee agreed that increasing points of contact with North Korea is crucial to improving out understanding of the country and how the leadership change would go. She said some progress has been made, including that in the Spring, the United States will resume efforts to recover remains of Americans killed there during the Korean War.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.