North Korea and Iran: How the two states test US diplomacy
North Korea is seen as an unpredictable 'spoiled child.' Iran is seen as a rational but aggressive nation. Each have nuclear programs, but pose unique problems for US security.
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Iran's "rational" behavior is one reason some analysts find it easier to understand the actions Tehran takes. "If I put myself in the shoes of the Iranians, it's not so difficult to take their version of things," says Bacevich. Facing the security threat posed by the US, which after all still has 50,000 troops next door in Iraq, "they have made a rational calculation to ramp up effective defenses," he says.Skip to next paragraph
If the Iranians are master chess players, as they're sometimes described – the epitome of rationality – the North Koreans are something else.
The roots of North Korea's worldview
To understand Pyongyang today, it may help to step back from a world of nuclear weapons and antiballistic missiles into one of feudal kings.
North Korea, in both its mode of governance and its view of the world, perpetuates the cruelty as well as the isolationism of the Chosun Dynasty kings who ruled the Korean Peninsula for 500 years until the Japanese arrived in force in the early 1900s. The North Korean regime, with its dictatorial hold over 24 million people, carries on the forms of that era in a rigid class system, harsh penalties for any sign of disrespect for the ruler – and the dynastic succession that began with "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung.
The system has delivered a North Korea that operates as an international crime syndicate, with a class of privileged elites headed by a mafia that trades in contraband ranging from narcotics to missiles to components of nuclear devices. In the meantime, the bulk of the population endures a dilapidated economic system in which industry has failed, most people don't have electricity, public health is miserable, food is scarce, and public executions are common.
Given those internal conditions, it might seem all the more perplexing that the regime continues to stage provocative incidents beyond its borders.
Brian Myers, a professor and author of "The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters," synthesizes the strands of influences informing the lives of the North Korean elite as "a paranoid, race-based nationalism with roots in Japanese fascism." Given the mind-set, he says, "North Korea as a military state has to flex its muscles on a regular basis."
In an interview following the North's Nov. 23 artillery barrage on tiny Yeonpyeong Island, Mr. Myers said that North Korea "thrives on tensions." Look at "the very fact that they play into the crazy rhetoric," he says. "These things will keep going."
Rather than a communist country, Myers describes North Korea as a "far right state with a command economy. They justify their existence. They are feeling naturally pretty sure of themselves when they sink a Korean ship" – an allusion to the torpedo attack that sank the South Korean warship Cheonan on March 26, killing 46 sailors.
Yet for all its bravado, North Korea remains dependent on China – a link once again rooted in the Chosun era. Korean kings, from behind their palace walls in Seoul, emerged every year on pilgrimages to Beijing, paying homage to the emperor. They would sometimes remain there for weeks, engaging in commercial deals and social activities that cemented a relationship in which Korea was not exactly a dependency but a protectorate.
Though its frustration with Pyongyang's acting up may be rising, China still seems committed to the survival of the North Korean regime as a buffer: between China and its historic foe Japan and latter-day foe, the US. For China, North Korea is also a potential source of mineral wealth, as well as many forms of cross-border trade, some of it legal, much of it on the black market.