North Korea’s nuclear genie is out of the bottle

All the theories aside, Pyongyang has passed the point of no return and now it is too late to stop North Korea from going nuclear.

For 23 years, the United States has tried to thwart the Hermit Kingdom’s push for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). All the efforts since 1994, however, have failed to achieve that feat.

As Americans were celebrating Independence Day, North Korea tested a nuclear-capable, intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4.

What is perhaps even more threatening, reports Alex Lockie of Business Insider, “Unlike other North Korean missiles, the intercontinental-range Hwasong-14 missile uses a shroud… Shrouds usually indicate that a missile has multiple, independent reentry vehicles for a payload. A missile with multiple nuclear warheads can not only do more damage to its target, but also pose a greater challenge for missile defenses.”

The July 4 test, writes Eric Talmadge of Associated Press, “demonstrated the North is closer than ever before to reaching its final goal of developing a credible nuclear deterrent to what it sees as the hostile policy of its archenemies in Washington… For sure, the North’s Fourth of July fireworks were a major success. Initial analyses indicate its new Hwasong-14 could be capable of reaching most of Alaska or possibly Hawaii if fired in an attacking trajectory.”

As Kim Jong-Un is crossing another threshold with his successful test of the Hwasong-14 ICBM, U.S. military options to destroy his nuclear arsenal are “more grim than ever,” warns Motoko Rich of New York Times, “any attempt to do so would provoke a brutal counterattack against South Korea too bloody and damaging to risk.”

“Even the most limited strike risks staggering casualties,” writes Rich, “because North Korea could retaliate with the thousands of artillery pieces it has positioned along its border with the South. Beyond that, there is no historical precedent for a military attack aimed at destroying a country’s nuclear arsenal. U.S. officials believe North Korea has built as many as a dozen nuclear bombs-perhaps many more-and can mount them on missiles capable of hitting much of Japan and South Korea… A pre-emptive U.S. attack would very likely fail to wipe out North Korea’s arsenal, because some of the North’s facilities are deep in mountain caves or underground and many of its missiles are hidden on mobile launchers.”

North Korea may have finally achieved an “asymmetric deterrence.” Though Pyongyang will lose any war with the United States-analysts believe it will take American and South Korean forces three to four days to overwhelm North Korean military; the North will for sure impose unacceptable costs on South Korea, Japan and potentially the U.S. A second war with North Korea, as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis warned lately, “would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”

Once almost unthinkable, Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities are now a reality and here to stay. The window for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula is “closed,” says Jeffrey Lewis at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, “the threat can be managed only by ‘accepting the unacceptable’ as a hard fact of life.”

To “accepting the unacceptable” is to acknowledge that “North Korea is not a problem that can be solved,” argues David Kang of University of Southern California, “as much as the West may engage in wishful thinking about a revolution, the Kim family regime has survived far longer than almost anyone predicted. Even today, it shows no signs of collapsing, and the North Koreans show no signs of rebelling en masse.”

“Sanctions and threats have not worked in the past,” writes Kang, “and more of the same most certainly will not work in the future. As his father and grandfather did, Mr. Kim meets pressure with pressure… Nuclear weapons are almost useless for coercion, but they are great for deterrence. They are designed to ensure the survival of the country and the regime. The more pressure the United States puts on the North Koreans, the more likely they are to continue perfecting their missiles and nuclear weapons.”

It is too late to put the North Korean nuclear genie back in the bottle. The best that the United States can do now is to accept North Korea’s nuclear state status, have a direct talk with Pyongyang, and freeze the nuclear genie that is already out of the bottle.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.