We have tried carrots and sticks, aid and sanctions, engagement and isolation. Nothing seems to work.
Month by month, North Korea keeps edging closer to the Bomb. A moment that has been approaching for decades is upon us. A pudgy and petulant man-child, who owes his position to having calmly murdered members of his own family, may soon be able to threaten us with obliteration. Can anything be done, or is the problem, as Vladimir Putin suggests, insoluble?
Few problems are insoluble. But some can be solved only by creating worse problems. Consider, by way of illustration, the options now being mooted.
Tougher sanctions. We might be able to stop military materials reaching North Korea, but only if we stop pretty much everything else reaching it, too. That would likely plunge the country into another famine, and would in any case work only if China and Russia took part.
Targeted strikes. We could try to hit North Korea's nuclear facilities – an option Bill Clinton looked at – but it's risky. If any were left, they might launch retaliatory strikes against South Korea and Japan.
Conventional war. Overwhelming air power might paralyse the North Korean military but, again, would almost certainly trigger a reaction. It could also invite Chinese intervention. Let's not forget why Korea was divided in the first place.
Befriend China. If there's one thing China wants less than an H-bomb-wielding maniac on its doorstep, it's a united Korea allied to the United States. Lecturing Beijing about its responsibilities hasn't worked. To win China's collaboration, we'd need to put something of comparable value on the table. The things that the Chinese would regard as comparable – abandoning Taiwan, say, or backing their maritime territorial claims – are not acceptable to the West.
Give South Korea nukes. The Pat Buchanan solution. Since nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented, runs the argument, the least bad option is to create local power balances: arm Ukraine to deter Russia, arm South Korea to deter North Korea and so on. It's a dangerously open-ended argument. Should we arm Saudi Arabia to deter Iran? Lebanon to deter Israel? Cuba to deter the United States? Would the world truly be safer if everyone had weapons of mass destruction?
Regime change. Easier said than done. Dictators are famously paranoid. The United States was not able to remove Saddam Hussein, either through a coup or by lobbing ordnance at him. The CIA is supposed to have tried to assassinate Fidel Castro 638 times, including once with an exploding cigar and once with a poisoned wetsuit. In the end, the old monster died in bed. What would be Kim Jong-un's reaction if he were convinced that the United States were bent on killing him? A hunted man has less to lose from starting a war.
You see the difficulty? In each case, the cure is potentially worse than the disease. Kim knows it, which is why he feels he can get away with escalation.
What, then, is the alternative? The alternative is what we have now, and what we have had for seventy years, namely deterrence through the threat of overwhelming retaliation. When Donald Trump talks of "fire and fury," he is using characteristically florid language, but pursuing a quite conventional policy. One, moreover, that has worked.
In the 1950s, nuclear holocaust was seen as a question of when rather than if. Novelists – John Wyndham, Robert Heinlein, Neville Shute, Kurt Vonnegut – treated the apocalypse as a stock scenario. The mushroom cloud was a popular icon on book covers, movie posters, record sleeves. The most brilliant men of the era, including Albert Einstein and Carl Sagen, believed that civilization was doomed.
Why didn't it happen? Because deterrence is effective. Even the nastiest autocrats don't want to set off a chain of events that will lead to the loss of their palaces, parades, harems and lives.
North Korea's pursuit of nuclear technology is based on the same rationale. Kim knows that Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who was persuaded to disarm, ended up being shot. By contrast, the nuclear program has kept his dynasty in power, albeit at abominable cost to North Koreans, for seventy years.
We are, in short, dealing with someone who, for all his eccentricities, can do a basic cost-benefit analysis. Life is good for Kim; and he knows that, in Donald Trump, he is up against someone who might just be crazy enough to vaporize him. The system, we might almost say, is working.
Dan Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.