How do you solve a problem like North Korea?

There are three things to remember about North Korea:

Never believe media reports about the “crazy” and “irrational” North Korean leader. Kim Jong-il might be bad and dangerous, but he is not mad.

North Korea is not about to get rid of its nuclear weapons, because they guarantee regime survival.

Any story about North Korea will invariably have the same headline (see above).

The mystery to me is why the Obama administration has reached out now to Pyongyang by inviting the vice foreign minister to New York for “exploratory” talks today and tomorrow. If you add this longstanding foreign policy headache to Iran, Afghanistan/Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Libya and the Arab Spring, it’s hard to see why Obama would actively choose to focus on this in the middle of the debt crisis, with the economy likely to overshadow the rest of his reelection campaign. Administration officials must feel that there is a chance of success, or they would not have bothered.

It’s hardly been a prime focus of Obama’s first term. The watchword of the administration has been “strategic patience,” a diplomatic way of kicking the North Korean can down the road. It has been hard to perceive much difference between Obama’s policy and that of his predecessor, George Bush, who let the Six Party process — involving the U.S., Russia, China, Japan and the two Koreas — be the forum for talks. There is one key difference: Ynder Obama, the U.S. has said explicitly that it is not seeking regime change, but rather a change in regime behavior in order to fundamentally improve the relationship.

But now two things have happened. State Department officials say that Hillary Clinton wants to follow up on a “constructive” meeting between negotiators from North and South in Indonesia. And the North Korean vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, arriving in New York, said he was "optimistic of the prospects for the six-way talks and the North-U.S. relationship."

North Korea places a premium on direct talks with Washington. But the U.S. continues to insist that progress is needed on North Korea’s 2005 commitments to verifiable denuclearization, enshrined in a Six Party statement. Congress remains skeptical, given North Korea’s record of nuclear blackmail.

Obama is surely right to resume a dialogue with North Korea, at least in the interests of avoiding a terrible strategic miscalculation by the secretive nuclear-armed state as it transitions to a new leader in the family dynasty. But as in the Middle East, there is a risk that failure will carry even more heavy consequences.