SEOUL - North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's decision to cancel his first overseas visit was probably prompted more by concerns about image control than any threat of domestic instability, analysts said Friday.
Announcing that Kim would not be attending Russia's World War II anniversary celebrations in Moscow next week, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said the reason communicated by Pyongyang was "internal North Korean issues."
No further details were provided, but the wording inevitably triggered speculation that Kim might be facing some sort of domestic challenge to his authority.
"I don't buy that at all," said veteran North Korean watcher Andrei Lankov.
"There's no sign of any collective dissent in the leadership. He's been playing a game of musical chairs with his top military officers and his position still seems very secure," said Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.
Kim's initial acceptance of the invitation to the Moscow event had set up a number of potentially intriguing diplomatic scenarios for what would have been his first foreign trip since taking power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, in December 2011.
Although he has received a number of high-ranking Chinese officials in Pyongyang, the most prominent foreigner Kim has met in all that time is probably the former NBA basketball star, Dennis Rodman.
Three years, no summit
He has yet to hold a single summit, having snubbed the president of Mongolia who visited Pyongyang in 2013.
Moscow, therefore, would have been quite a showy debut, given the presence of numerous other heads of state, including China's Xi Jinping.
"In the end, I think that might have been the real problem," said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
"This young man hasn't had a sit-down with any foreign leader, and suddenly he's looking at the prospect of walking into a roomful of them," Yang said.
North Korea is extremely sensitive and protective when it comes to the image of the ruling Kim dynasty, whose members are deified in both life and death.
Although Kim Jong-Un has shown himself to be more spontaneous than his father, his public appearances are heavily choreographed and the images released of them carefully vetted.
"He seems quite impulsive, and it might well be that he genuinely wanted to go to Moscow at first," said Lankov.
"But the possible pitfalls are obvious. Even Russia couldn't provide the sort of media control he's used to.
"And then there's always the chance of an encounter with an openly hostile foreign leader who might choose to register his disgust just to score points at home," Lankov said.
Most analysts agreed that, with Moscow off the cards, the most likely "coming out" for Kim would be a bilateral summit - most probably on North Korean soil.
The Kim dynasty has never been big on overseas trips. Kim's grandfather and North Korea's founding leader Kim Il-Sung managed to visit most of the former Eastern Bloc, but the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union left fewer destination options for Kim Jong-Il when he took over in 1994.
Kim Jong-Il also hated flying, and limited his travels to train trips to China and Russia.
China remains North Korea's main diplomatic protector and economic provider and Beijing would normally be seen as the natural choice for Kim Jong-Un's first overseas trip as leader.
But ties have been strained in recent years by North Korea's relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons, and Beijing's patience with Pyongyang's unpredictable behaviour has shown signs of wearing very thin.
Xi and Kim have kept their distance since each assumed power and the Chinese leader's first visit as head of state to the Korean peninsula last year was to the capitalist South rather than the North.
"I still think that Kim's first summit will be with China," said Paik Hak-Soon, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think-tank.
"It's the only country that can provide the economic assistance the North needs, and Kim knows that full well," Paik said.