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North Korea and Iran: How the two states test US diplomacy

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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.

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.

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