Lawyers say hard cases make for bad law. That's because the hard cases are exceptions, and making a general rule based on the exception is bound to create problems. North Korea is one of those exceptionally hard cases.
Kim Jong Il would seem unrealistic even as a comic-book villain. In a world full of strange and exotic cultures, North Korea's neo-Stalinist experiment ranks as otherworldly. Try to imagine what a North Korea exhibit at Epcot Center would display: emaciated, out-of-work actors (no shortage there) eating fake tree bark while guarding a giant concentration camp where prisoners are forced to worship a guy who should be wearing a tinfoil hat at the local library. Don't forget to try the sawdust kimchi!
Proof that North Korea is a hard case can be found in the fact that the Democrats and Republicans have switched sides. Ordinarily multilateralist Democrats are now unalloyed champions of unilateralism, in the form of face-to-face negotiations with North Korea, while President Bush - that infamous go-it-alone "cowboy" - has embraced international teamwork. Both approaches are flawed for a simple reason: North Korea wants a nuclear weapon because it wants a nuclear weapon.
The Jimmy Carter vision holds that North Korea's nukes are coupons to be redeemed for groceries. But the North Koreans pocketed U.S. concessions after face-to-face talks in 1994 and continued pursuing nukes because ... they wanted nukes. Bush's strategy has been, first, to declare that advances in North Korea's nuclear program are "unacceptable" and then do nothing, and second, to insist that the U.S. can't accomplish anything because our "partners" won't cooperate.
The North Korea dilemma - much like the threat of Islamic fanaticism - is Aesopian. The frog in Aesop's fable did not wish to be stung by the scorpion. The scorpion's position? Wishing's got nothing to do with it. Americans tend to think - and Europeans consider it gospel - that all differences can be negotiated. The truth is that only negotiable problems can be negotiated. Just ask Hamas if everything can be bargained for around a table. Their one non-negotiable principle is that Israel must cease to exist. Beyond that, they're open to all sorts of creative proposals.
What's worrisome about the hard case of North Korea is that so many people see Pyongyang's intransigence as proof that the whole international community has to work together.