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We should note that China's role in this confrontation is important in part because it's one of the only countries that has regular contact with North Korea. In the U.S., intelligence officials will freely acknowledge that they don't understand North Korea all that well. And they do worry the North Koreans themselves may not grasp the dangers they now face. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: Each time there's a crisis on the Korean peninsula, a range of theories are offered in explanation. In the latest case, maybe the North Koreans sunk the South Korean Cheonan war boat in revenge for the South sinking a North Korean boat in an incident last November. Or maybe Kim Jong Il manufactured this crisis in order to bolster the standing of his son and position him to take over as North Korea's next leader.

Art Brown once served as the CIA station chief in Seoul, and later as the national intelligence officer for East Asia. He says the variety of explanations offered for North Korea's actions mostly shows how confusing its behavior is to Western analysts.

Mr. ART BROWN (Former CIA Officer): If we knew more about what the North Korean leadership was thinking, we would not be continually surprised. And yet we are. We're surprised by the submarine torpedo episode. We're surprised by a nuclear test. And then afterwards we sit around and speculate as to what the North Korean leadership had in mind for doing that.

GJELTEN: Communist North Korea has always been a mysterious place, but it's become all the stranger as it's grown more isolated.

Victor Cha, a Korea specialist at the White House under President George W. Bush, notes that Kim Jong Il has fewer communist friends than his father, Kim Il Sung, had.

Mr. VICTOR CHA (Center for Strategic and International Studies): The leadership during the Cold War had access to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The current generation has none of those benefits. They've largely lived in North Korea. Maybe an occasional trip to China, but that's about it.

GJELTEN: Meaning Kim and his cohorts are less worldly than their predecessors. And now the Pyongyang regime is on the verge of yet another leadership change. Kim Jong Il apparently suffered a stroke two years ago and his capabilities have been in question ever since.

The domestic political situation in Pyongyang is undoubtedly a factor in the current crisis, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official who follows Korea closely. But he says the United States has, quote, "no clarity," unquote, on how exactly the politics are playing out.

On the surface, the current situation seems less dangerous than previous episodes, such as when North Korean leaders talked about making Los Angeles a sea of fire. But the lack of clarity makes analysts uneasy.

Victor Cha, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the current North Korean leadership, isolated and in transition, may not be as skilled in the brinkmanship games for which Pyongyang has long been known.

Mr. CHA: The actions they have taken historically give one a sense that they do know where the edge of the cliff is. But we know so little about the North Korean leadership, any sort of confidence that weve had in the past that they won't push past the brink, I think there's probably less of a reservoir of that confidence today.

GJELTEN: And there is a potentially dangerous escalation scenario to be played out around the disputed Northern Limit Line that separates North and South Korean waters. There have been provocations at sea before, but South Korea's president seems determined this time that there be consequences for the death of the 46 sailors aboard the Cheonan warship.

Art Brown, who travels often to South Korea these days for business purposes, says he noticed on a trip to Seoul earlier this month that younger South Koreans are more angry about the Cheonan than they have been about any North Korean act in the past.

Mr. BROWN: For the first time on this episode, I noticed in conversations in Korea that this touched their hearts. These were 46 young draftees, young conscripts, similar to them in terms of generation. There was very much of there but for the grace of God could have gone my younger brother.

GJELTEN: Put it all together: A North Korean leadership in transition, possibly prone to mistakes in judgment; heated rhetoric and threats on both sides; and a South Korean government determined that this time the North should be held accountable for aggression.

In the words of a senior U.S. intelligence official: an extremely tense moment.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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