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

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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.

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