Richardson, who has not met Kim on his visits, speculated that the recent flare-up probably has one main audience.
"He wants the approval of the North Korean military," he said. "He's trying to convince them that he is ready to govern. There may have been some doubts because of his youth and the fact that he never served in the military, so he's trying to show them that he's tough."
If factions of the military are uneasy, experts said, Kim has given them more reasons to be unsettled than simply his youth. Last April, he startled observers by acknowledging the failure of a satellite launch — a mission intended as a show of military prowess that could one day threaten the continental United States. Such admissions are unheard of in a country where citizens place a premium on saving face and display nothing but adulation for the military.
Later that month, Kim delivered a landmark speech that some interpreted as a notable departure from his father's doctrine, known as "songun," or "military first."
North Koreans should no longer have to "tighten their belts," he proclaimed, and could look forward to enjoying "the wealth and prosperity of socialism as much as they like." Soon after announcing that vision, Pyongyang offered hints that the country was experimenting with modest yet significant agricultural reforms that appeared designed to liberalize the economy a notch.
"There may have been a major push-back from the military," said Gause, the CNA researcher, noting that, in July, Ri Yong Ho, the chief military officer outside the Kim family, was publicly ousted. His dismissal was part of a broader purge of defense leaders that some analysts believe represents an effort by Kim to surround himself with loyalists.