Nicholas Eberstadt outlines for National Review Online readers key problems in the American government’s approach to North Korea.

North Korea is embarked on a steady, methodical, and relentless journey whose intended endpoint is a credible capability to hit New York and Washington with nuclear weapons. Pyongyang’s nuclear test in January is only the latest reminder that America’s policy response to nuclear proliferation in North Korea is a prolonged, and thoroughly bipartisan, failure. Our policy is a failure because our public and our leaders do not understand our adversary and his intentions. We cannot hope to cope successfully with the North Korean threat until we do.

The late “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il (son of regime founder “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung; father to current “Dear Respected Marshal” Kim Jong Un) used to speak of hiding his own politics, and in fact his entire country, “inside a fog” — of deliberately concealing his government’s calculations, strengths, and vulnerabilities from foreign eyes. Yet our seemingly unending inability to fathom Pyongyang’s true objectives, and our attendant proclivity for being taken by surprise over and over again by North Korean actions, is not just a matter of succumbing to Pyongyang’s strategic deceptions, assiduous as those efforts might be.

The trouble, rather, is that even our top foreign-policy experts and our most sophisticated diplomatists are perforce creatures of their own cultural heritage and intellectual environment. We Americans are, so to speak, children of the Enlightenment, steeped in the precepts of our highly globalized era. Which is to say: We have absolutely no common point of reference with the worldview or moral compass or first premises of the closed-society decision-makers who control the North Korean state. Americans’ first instincts are to misunderstand practically everything that the North Korean state is really about.