The detonation of what North Korea claimed was a nuclear device last week should not have been a surprise as it has been evident for many months that the "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il, had no intention of giving up his nuclear ambitions.
The New York Times reported that the explosion had given the administration of US President George W. Bush and much of Washington a "strategic jolt." But that was because official Washington hasn't been paying attention, consumed as it has been with Iraq, the Middle East, and the coming elections.
The critical question now is what the US and its allies should do next. None of the options is promising.
The North Koreans have been demanding direct talks with the US while the administration insists on dealing with Pyongyang through the so-called six-party talks in Beijing. Bilateral meetings have taken place during those talks, at the UN in New York, and could wherever the US and North Korea both have ambassadors.
All has been futile because the North Koreans are not serious about negotiating. What they want is evident: A peace treaty ending the Korean War of 1950-1953, which the US is willing to sign. Beyond that, they want a non-aggression pact, diplomatic relations with the US, a lifting of sanctions, an abrogation of the US-South Korea security treaty and all US troops off the Korean Peninsula.
Further, the North Koreans want to end the US-Japan security treaty and US forces withdrawn from Japan. Pyongyang has demanded that the Seventh Fleet be withdrawn from the Western Pacific. And they demand some sort of restrictions on US nuclear forces based at sea or on the US mainland.
For the US, most of those demands are not negotiable. And even if they were, there is no guarantee that North Korea, with its record of broken agreements, would give up nuclear weapons.
The US has already imposed trade and financial sanctions on North Korea; not much more could be done because Pyong-yang's economy is flat on its back. The North Koreans have already dismissed the threat of UN sanctions as meaningless.
While the US Army and Marine Corps are tied down in Iraq, the US Navy and Air Force have ample means to punish North Korea. Cruise missiles launched from submarines or B-52 bombers, all several hundred kilometers offshore, could severely damage North Korea's nuclear installations.
A small-scale "shot across the bow" warning or a large salvo fired for effect should be accompanied by an unambiguous US pledge that any North Korean move toward attacking South Korea would bring about the destruction of Pyongyang. That US assault could be conventional or nuclear. The danger of employing military force is that it could unleash the "Law of Unintended Consequences." Kim might become so desperate that he would order an attack on South Korea, causing untold casualties before his regime and forces could be destroyed.
The US and its allies have learned to live with Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, plus Britain and France, as nuclear powers. US adversaries have come to understand that a nuclear attack on the US would lead to retaliation and their destruction; thus they have stayed their hands. The same deterrence could be applied to North Korea.
In addition, North Korea would be roundly ignored by the US. No peace treaty, no non-aggression pact, no diplomatic relations, no trade or financial transactions, nothing. The authorities in Pyongyang would be given a telephone number and told to call when they are ready to talk seriously.