Now that Pyongyang has conducted its third nuclear test, the international community must accept what it cannot change: North Korea is a nuclear-arming state.
No sanctions, no carrots, no rhetoric, no threat, no military act is likely to change this fact. The question now is how to minimize risks. First, we need to take a deep breath before we leap to any new policy.
The impulse to push the North’s nuclear toothpaste back into the tube will remain. But sanctions have repeatedly failed. For reasons known only to itself, China — the one country that can effectively pinch North Korea both economically and politically — continues to provide Pyongyang with energy and foodstuffs. Beijing’s policy will likely continue.
What about military action? Contemplated during the Clinton administration and perhaps since, it never has been attractive and is now likely less so, for several reasons. Yes, intelligence now knows the address of Pyongyang’s Yonbong enrichment plant. But not the presumed additional sites. Nor can it reliably pinpoint stocks generated by the North’s now moribund plutonium production program, given the country’s vast network of hardened caves.
There is a more ominous risk: Military strikes could ignite a new Korean war. Yes, the South and its allies could prevail. But at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives that would be lost to the many thousands of artillery shells Pyongyang could launch.