If Kim is in fact interested in reforms, he might be taking a calculated gamble that by raising the specter of bloodshed, a war-weary United States might be prodded to provide him with a pathway out of the strict sanctions that have helped turn North Korea into the world's most isolated country.
"Kim Jong Un is making an effort to have a better negotiating position with the U.S. and South Korea," said Park Hyeong-jung, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification in Seoul. "North Korea stands to lose or win."
Hassig, the defense analyst in Alexandria, said Kim is playing a dangerous game, comparing him to "a puppy" that is "not trained or groomed and thus not afraid of anything."
The deepest insight into the young leader's thinking, North Korea experts reluctantly note, may come from the account of the only American he is known to have met: Rodman, the colorful former basketball star who traveled to Pyongyang this year.
"He wants [President] Obama to do one thing: call him," Rodman said in an interview with ABC News about his late-February trip. "He told me, 'If you can, Dennis — I don't want to do war. I don't want to do war.'"