Los Angeles Times - photo by Wong Maye-E / AP)
When he was campaigning for president, Donald Trump assured Americans that North Korea would never have an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. That has turned out to be just another of his empty promises. We now know that the North Koreans do have ICBM's capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, and that they have succeeded in making a nuclear warhead small enough to be delivered by that missile. And if they haven't already, they will soon solve the problems of accuracy and re-entry.
I don't give Trump the blame for this. The two presidents before him didn't do much to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons either. The sad fact is that North Korea was (and still is) determined to become a nuclear power. I think they view that as a self-defense measure (after seeing what has happened to other non-nuclear nations (like Iraq and Afghanistan).
The U.S. convinced the U.N. Security Council to impose new economic sanctions on North Korea, and even got China and Russia to go along with that. That won't stop the North Koreans from continuing to develop long-range nuclear missiles. If they can't buy and sell on the open market, they'll do it on the black market (and China will allow that).
So, the question now is -- what can the United States do? There are options, but none of them are good ones. Here is how I see it:
* I heard one talking head on cable news say we should put a total embargo on North Korea -- an embargo so strict that they won't be able to buy or sell anything. That won't happen. If such a measure is introduced in the U.N., it will be vetoed by China (and probably Russia also). The Chinese don't want a North Korea so desperate to feed its people and meet its other needs that they would be willing to invade South Korea to get those needs met. Such a total embargo would just be a delayed path to war.
* Others want to do a military strike to destroy North Korea's missile capability. Unfortunately, even if we knew where to strike, many sites are probably underground and could not be destroyed by a single strike. This would also result in a retaliation by North Korea's leader -- and even if he did noting but use his artillery against Seoul, many thousands of innocent people would die. This is really not a viable option.
* Another option put forward by the most insane, would be to attack North Korea to cause a regime change. Vietnam and Afghanistan should have convinced us that is a bad option, but it would also result in a real shooting war on the Korean peninsula -- and if it looked like North Korea was losing, the Chinese would once again enter the war. And the U.N. would not help this time (because China and Russia would veto any effort toward that). This is actually the worst of all options, and could result in a world war.
* That leaves only one real option -- the same option that we used with Russia and China when they became nuclear powers. We make it clear that any attack on the U.S. (or its allies) with a nuclear weapon would be met by an even larger reaction -- a reaction that would make North Korea a nuclear wasteland.
Will that work? It has to, since it's the only option available. It is scary though, because both North Korea and the United States have narcissistic megalomaniacs with their fingers on the nuclear button -- and either could launch missiles for no better reason than to feed their own fragile egos. They are already trading threats.