By Ernesto Londoño
The Washington Post
When Kim Jong Un first appeared in Pyongyang's carefully stage-managed public spotlight in the fall of 2010, North Korea watchers began scouring for clues to learn whether the pudgy heir apparent would be a reformist or simply the newest face of a despotic regime.
Fifteen months after taking the reins of the hermit state following the death of his stoic father, North Korea's 30-year-old leader appears to be careening toward the latter — at least on the surface.
Having disavowed his country's armistice with South Korea and threatened to fire his increasingly capable missiles toward the United States, Kim has put the Korean Peninsula and Washington on a war footing. His behavior follows the playbook of his predecessors, with one notable and potentially dangerous departure that appears to have him backed into a corner.
"His father and his grandfather always figured into their provocation cycle an off-ramp of how to get out of it," Adm. Samuel Locklear III, the commander of U.S. troops in the Pacific, told Congress this past week. "It's not clear to me that he has thought through how to get out of it. This is what makes this scenario, I think, particularly challenging."
Making sense of the Kims has been more of an art than a science. A cadre of North Korea scholars has spent decades piecing together a portrait of the eccentric, secretive family by poring through mounds of propaganda, defector accounts and the limited, sporadic contact the regime has had with the West. While acknowledging that Kim Jong Un remains an enigma, experts in the intricacies of Pyongyang say a careful study suggests his recent bout of bellicose rhetoric probably represents a desperate cry for legitimacy rather than a genuine appetite for combat.