Even before the mystifying Kim Jong Il took power in 1994, the outside world was trying mightily to figure out how the North Korean regime works. Spy satellites are trained on its suspected nuclear sites 24 hours a day. Defectors from the North have been thoroughly scrubbed, and spies have been recruited. Diplomats from the U.S. and four other countries have talked on and off for years with their counterparts from Pyongyang. For all that, the May 25 nuclear-weapons test--North Korea's second in three years--makes clear just how dangerously unpredictable it can be.
The international community struck the usual poses that follow Pyongyang's periodic outrages. President Barack Obama said in a statement that the test would "serve to deepen North Korea's isolation." Japan said it would "not tolerate" such actions and called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, a demand South Korea backed. Russia expressed "serious concern." Even the Chinese, North Korea's alleged ally, said they were "firmly opposed" to the test.
None of that offers much hope for change. North Korea is already the world's most isolated country; the idea that Kim Jong Il's regime even cares if its isolation "deepens" is dubious at best. But what might change as a result of the blast--estimated to be several times more powerful than the one in North Korea's 2006 test--is how the international community deals with the planet's most destabilizing nuclear regime.
The fundamental notion underlying U.S. diplomacy with Pyongyang since the Clinton era--a hawkish detour under George W. Bush notwithstanding--is that the North can be bribed. Yet the country's rhetoric since Obama's Inauguration has been vitriolic. It is possible that its most recent nuclear test will finally convince diplomats that the North Korea they see is the one they get: that perhaps on the question of nukes, it simply can't be bribed.
North Korean leaders have long cited the year 2012 as being particularly significant. It will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the nation's founder and Kim Jong Il's father and predecessor. Kim Jong Il, now 67 and ailing since a stroke last summer, is thought to be arranging his succession: analysts believe he wants to pass power to his youngest son, 26-year-old Kim Jong Un.
In this febrile environment, the military is said to have stepped up its influence in Pyongyang. A group of North Korean exiles has circulated a report saying that Kim has assured his generals that by 2012, the North will have achieved the status of a nuclear state, one with the ability to fit a warhead on a long-range missile.
Reports from defector groups are not always reliable. But following its latest test, the assumption that North Korea will be ultimately willing to negotiate away its nuclear program is under new scrutiny. North Korea's "ultimate goal now is to be a full nuclear state," says Baek Seung Joo, director of the Center for Security and Strategy at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. If that's true, containment (not bribery) will need to become the focus of the outside world's diplomacy with Pyongyang--starting in Washington.
A banner lauds, in part, "the great leader Kim Il Sung"