North Korea can also be predictable. Since at least the early 1990s, Pyongyang's relations and level of engagement with its neighbors and with Washington have swung wildly from outright hostility toward rapprochement and back again. No matter how tense things get, Kim Jong Il (like his father Kim Il Sung before him) always steps back from the ledge and tries to re-engage.
Historically, the North's intention has been to evoke a "euphoric reaction in its opponents for simply returning to the previously unacceptable status quo," says Bruce Klingner, former deputy head of Korean analysis at the CIA.
That status quo now consists of a full-bore pursuit of a nuclear-weapons program — despite a pledge to cease and desist at the so-called six-party talks held during the Bush Administration — as well as a long-range missile development program that continues despite a U.N. resolution calling for its end.
The North, moreover, has already attached an important condition to its re-engagement: last week, its diplomats told New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under Bill Clinton, that Pyongyang would return to the negotiating table only if it could deal directly with the U.S. and not the other countries involved in the six-party talks.
The North, in other words, has now successfully placed the onus on Washington's shoulders. How will the U.S. respond?
One important difference: Kim Jong Il has been sick, and has apparently taken steps to arrange a dynastic succession for his youngest son, Kim Jong Un. It's possible that Kim may want to do a deal once and for all. Suffice to say that the Obama Administration has little choice but to see whether that's true.