Pretty much everybody following North Korea's nuclear activity over the last year knew that at some point in time, Kim Jong Un's regime would finally master the technology needed to pair a nuclear bomb with an intercontinental ballistic missile. If it didn't happen today, it would happen the next day or the day after that.
Indeed, for all of the popular mythology surrounding the North Korean government as an unpredictable, unconventional, and belligerent entity led by a crazy person, the Kim dynasty has actually been predictable and ruthlessly pragmatic toward its nuclear pursuits.
Now that the Defense Intelligence Agency assesses that North Korea "has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles," the only technological feat Pyongyang's scientists need to figure out is creating a reentry vehicle durable enough to withstand the heat and pressure of an ICBM re-entering the earth's atmosphere. And if we know anything about North Korea, that too will occur sooner or later.
North Korea is for all intents and purposes a nuclear weapons state, even if the international community refuses to formally recognize it as such. With an intelligence assessment strongly suggesting that Kim can miniaturize a nuclear device onto a missile, the United States doesn't have the luxury of continuing the same old policy.
The Trump administration must begin to accept the inevitable: North Korea has the world's ultimate deterrent. Washington needs to shift from denuclearization— a pie-in-the-sky goal that was always remote — to Cold War-style deterrence.
Convincing or forcing Kim to give up his nuclear weapons capability in return for security guarantees and a normalization of the U.S.-North Korea relationship has been the de facto U.S. policy over the last 25 years.
It was thought that, like many other governments, Pyongyang would come to the conclusion that pouring money into nuclear and missile research, testing, and production would only further their economic and political isolation. Eight rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions, including one last weekend, and threats of military action would eventually snap North Korea back into reality. The Kim dynasty would have no choice but to accept full and unconditional denuclearization if it wanted to survive.
Yet, for three generations of the Kim family, obtaining a nuclear weapon and attaining the ability to put those weapons onto a long-range projectile was the key to their regime's survival. Pyongyang rightly determined that no country, not even the U.S., would launch a preemptive attack if a nuclear counter-strike on the U.S. mainland was a possibility.
Negotiations, sanctions, diplomatic isolation, threats of force, and a combination of all four have all failed to produce the intended outcome that Washington sought. With Tuesday's DIA assessment, the U.S. is now left with two unfortunate options: bomb North Korea's nuke plants, missile facilities, and command-and-control system; or embrace the current state of affairs and work to make sure Kim knows for certain that any screwing around with nuclear weapons will be met with the full weight and power of the U.S.
Washington could severely damage North Korea's weapons of mass destruction capability through military strikes, but only if it was willing to countenance potentially millions of civilian casualties and the collapse of two of the world's biggest economies in South Korea and Japan. Just because an option is available doesn't mean it should be followed — the costs of a U.S. attack would so far outweigh the benefits that it wouldn't be smart to even consider it.
Pyongyang's retaliation would be so brisk that those advocating for a U.S. military option should be wise to seek counseling.
And the benefits might not be less than advertised; since the Kim regime is such a tough nut for the intelligence community to crack, it's highly unlikely that the most coordinated U.S. operation would destroy all of North Korea's facilities.
Deterrence is the one choice the Trump administration has left. Fortunately, deterrence has averted nuclear war between states for seven decades and worked to contain powers, such as the former Soviet Union and Chin, that were and are far more powerful than North Korea will ever be. Since Kim Jong Un is obsessed with personal control and keeping his government alive, it can work again.
Denuclearization is likely dead. No combination of economic sanctions and diplomatic concessions will be strong or as appetizing to Kim as nuclear weapons.
Deterrence, however, is alive and well. If the Trump administration sends Kim an unambiguous and forceful message that the use or transfer of nukes won't be tolerated, the North Korean nuclear problem can be kept under control.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a fellow at Defense Priorities. His opinions are his own.
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