The North's positioning is superb: Minimal risky action sufficient to lend credibility to its ferocity and craziness plus endless rhetorical threats maneuvers North Korea into being a major global threat in the eyes of the great powers. Having won themselves this position, the North Koreans are not about to risk it, even if a 20-something leader is hurling threats.
The China Angle and the Iranian Pupil
There is, however, a somewhat more interesting dimension emerging. Over the years, the United States, Japan and South Korea have looked to the Chinese to intercede and persuade the North Koreans not to do anything rash. This diplomatic pattern has established itself so firmly that we wonder what the actual Chinese role is in all this. China is currently engaged in territorial disputes with U.S. allies in the South and East China seas. Whether anyone would or could go to war over islands in these waters is dubious, but the situation is still worth noting.
The Chinese and the Japanese have been particularly hostile toward one another in recent weeks in terms of rhetoric and moving their ships around. A crisis in North Korea, particularly one in which the North tested a nuclear weapon, would inevitably initiate the diplomatic dance whereby the Americans and Japanese ask the Chinese to intercede with the North Koreans. The Chinese would oblige. This is not a great effort for them, since having detonated a nuclear device, the North isn't interested in doing much more. In fact, Pyongyang will be drawing on the test's proverbial fallout for some time. The Chinese are calling in no chits with the North Koreans, and the Americans and Japanese -- terribly afraid of what the ferocious, weak, crazy North Koreans will do next -- will be grateful to China for defusing the "crisis." And who could be so churlish as to raise issues on trade or minor islands when China has used its power to force North Korea to step down?
It is impossible for us to know what the Chinese are thinking, and we have no overt basis for assuming the Chinese and North Koreans are collaborating, but we do note that China has taken an increasing interest in stabilizing North Korea. For its part, North Korea has tended to stage these crises -- and their subsequent Chinese interventions -- at quite useful times for Beijing.
It should also be noted that other countries have learned the ferocious, weak, crazy maneuver from North Korea. Iran is the best pupil. It has convincingly portrayed itself as ferocious via its nuclear program, endlessly and quite publicly pursuing its program without ever quite succeeding. It is also persistently seen as weak, perpetually facing economic crises and wrathful mobs of iPod-wielding youths. Whether Iran can play the weakness card as skillfully as North Korea remains unclear -- Iran just doesn't have the famines North Korea has.
Additionally, Iran's rhetoric at times can certainly be considered crazy: Tehran has carefully cultivated perceptions that it would wage nuclear war even if this meant the death of all Iranians. Like North Korea, Iran also has managed to retain its form of government and its national sovereignty. Endless predictions of the fall of the Islamic republic to a rising generation have proved false.
I do not mean to appear to be criticizing the "ferocious, weak and crazy" strategy. When you are playing a weak hand, such a strategy can yield demonstrable benefits. It preserves regimes, centers one as a major international player and can wring concessions out of major powers. It can be pushed too far, however, when the fear of ferocity and craziness undermines the solace your opponents find in your weakness.
Diplomacy is the art of nations achieving their ends without resorting to war. It is particularly important for small, isolated nations to survive without going to war. As in many things, the paradox of appearing willing to go to war in spite of all rational calculations can be the foundation for avoiding war. It is a sound strategy, and for North Korea and Iran, for the time being at least, it has worked.