The reason for this latest surge of belligerence is clear: It's the regime, stupid, just as it has always been. Pyongyang's political structure has not
changed one bit since the accession of Kim Jong-un, just as it did not after Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and his son, Kim Jong Il, took over. Shaped in the
coldest days of the Cold War, the North Korean regime features an enduring brand of totalitarianism unlike anything the world has seen. Even more than
other dictatorships, it is sustained by pure xenophobia, a paranoia about threats from the outside world, even as Stalinism has become a yellowing chapter
in the history books elsewhere. Pyongyang's statement that its nuclear forces "represent the nation's life" sounds ridiculous. Yet it is a true description
of the regime's life. "You could surround North Korea with 10 Costa Ricas and they'd still feel threatened," says Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic
and International Studies, who was director for Asian affairs at George W. Bush's National Security Council.
Out in the real world, the Soviet Union collapsed, its former satellites democratized, the Chinese opened up and reformed, and even the Arab autocracies
began to reform or topple. Inside North Korea, it is still 1953, and I'm not just talking about Kim Jong-un's hairstyle. The regime's ideology, called juche, is often simplistically defined as Korean self-reliance. In fact it has proven to be a kind of ideological superglue--a compound of
traditional Korean xenophobia and nationalism, Confucian respect for authority, and utopian Marxism-Leninism that is able to resist the solvents of
economic urgency or democratic modernization.
The role of paranoia as the lifeblood of the Hermit Kingdom is basically why absolutely nothing the United States or West have tried--no tactic, no
strategy--has worked to wean the North from its nukes. Negotiation and threats, appeasement and shows of force, have all equally failed. Since the 1994
Agreed Framework, the Clinton-era pact under which the North was to get fuel oil, food aid, and billions of dollars' worth of civilian nuclear equipment in
return for freezing and "eventually" dismantling its plutonium program, North Korea has used its sputtering nuclear program as a bargaining chip to gain
Western attention. And every time it has failed to follow through on pledges to dismantle the program.
The Bush administration initially denounced the Clinton deal with Pyongyang. Paul Wolfowitz, President Bush's often-errant deputy Defense secretary,
declared in 2004 that North Korea was "teetering on the edge of economic collapse," suggesting that a freeze in aid would bring political collapse as well.
Yet the North conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, and Bush too eventually came around to the idea that the regime in Pyongyang wasn't going anywhere,
so it might be better to trade off proliferation for a little food and aid. But a 2007 attempt at an aid-for-nukes deal fell apart as well. The Obama
administration, confronted with another nuclear test in 2009, adopted a policy of "strategic patience" under which Washington refused to offer any new
incentives to Pyongyang until the North suspended its program. That failed utterly too. Indeed, this administration has faced a worse threat--two nukes and
three ballistic tests--than its predecessor.