One year after the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, little seems to have changed in the country he bequeathed to his son, Kim Jong-Un.
Or maybe it has.
The one constant everyone can agree on is that outside understanding of what is really happening in North Korea—politically, socially and economically—remains, at best, a matter of educated guesswork.
And even when that guesswork is based on state-of-the-art monitoring technology, it can still miss the mark completely, as proved by the North's long-range rocket launch last week.
Having analysed satellite images and taken into account Pyongyang's announcement of technical problems, South Korean military officials and US experts confidently stated that the launch faced a lengthy delay and might even be cancelled.
Less than 24 hours later, the rocket successfully blasted off.
But at least the officials and experts had images to analyse, whereas the daily life of most North Koreans remains largely invisible, especially outside the show capital Pyongyang.
When Kim Jong-Il died, he left a country in dire economic straits—the result of a "military first" policy that fed an ambitious missile and nuclear programme at the expense of a malnourished population.
The handover of power to the young Kim Jong-Un, only in his late 20s, prompted radically different forecasts from North Korea watchers.
Some saw a glimmer of reformist hope in the Swiss-educated heir, while others believed his youth and inexperience would be his undoing and even lead to the collapse of the regime.
A year later, he's still very much in power, but the glimmer of economic reform has shown little sign of burning brighter.
Analysts such as Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in Britain, believe expectations of any sudden policy shift were bound to be frustrated.
Kim Jong-Un's first and only priority, they argue, was to cement his legitimacy as the dynastic successor and demonstrate his loyalty to the legacies of his father and grandfather, North Korea's founding leader Kim Il-Sung.
Jury still out
"There was never going to be a whole reform package, where Kim Jong-Un comes along and says 'OK guys, we've been wrong all these years'," Foster-Carter said in a recent address at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
"He may have a different leadership style but does it go any further? The C. I don't think we can say he's doing anything definitely different," he said.
The "style" change included a public address just four months after assuming the leadership to mark the 100th birthday of his grandfather.
Kim Jong-Il was believed to have spoken just once at a major public occasion during his 17 years in power—and that was a single sentence.
Although Kim Jong-Un stressed that his "first, second and third" priorities were to strengthen the military, he also voiced his determination that the North Korean people "will never have to tighten their belts again".
Months later the leadership issued what became known as the "June 28 directive" flagging a "new economic management system" and there were reported policy trials, including incentives for workers and farmers to boost productivity.
But there have been few signs that such initiatives gained traction, and widespread speculation that a September session of the North's rubber-stamp Parliament would formalise experiments with market reforms proved unfounded.
Instead Kim Jong-Un has focused on consolidating his power base with a series of high-profile personnel changes, notably within the military elite, while at the same time pursuing Kim Jong-Il's missile programme.
"The young leader followed the teachings left by his father to push ahead with missile tests while trying to fix his own style of dictatorship," said Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at Sejong University in Seoul.
Meanwhile, daily life for millions of Koreans remains a struggle, according to United Nations agencies, despite an improvement in staple food output.
Overall production for the main 2012 harvest and 2013 early season crops is expected to be 5.8-million metric tonnes, up 10% on 2011-2012, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Food Programme.
But their report said the figures "should not mask an ongoing struggle with undernutrition and a lack of vital protein and fat in the diet, especially for an estimated 2.8-million vulnerable people".
Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, sees room for optimism, arguing that Kim Jong-Un needs time—maybe years—to further consolidate his position before showing his true colours.
"After that we may begin to see more open and benevolent economic policies," Yang said. - AFP