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SEOUL, South Korea – A dictator stands on the verge of possessing nuclear missiles that threaten U.S. shores. A worried world ponders airstrikes and sanctions.
North Korea in 2017, right?
It's actually China in the 1960s and '70s, when Mao Zedong's government staged a series of bold nuclear and missile tests. Outsiders eventually learned to live with China as an established nuclear power, even looking to Beijing, so far futilely, to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
According to North Korean propaganda, the authoritarian nation run by three generations of the Kim family has been a nuclear state for years. With five nuclear tests of increasing power and the launch this past week of its first ICBM, observers are beginning to recognize what is still technically a taboo in government circles: North Korea is actually backing that boast up.
Over the decades, the United States and its allies have tried, or seriously contemplated, "surgical" military strikes, sanctions, isolation, diplomacy and pushing China to do more.
So far, nothing has worked in what academics call "The Land of Lousy Options."
What follows is an examination of what might be done as North Korea barrels over the world's nuclear red line.
There's little doubt that U.S. B-2 bombers, F-22 tactical jetfighters and a barrage of cruise missiles could take out North Korean nuclear facilities; eliminating scattered missile and delivery systems would be much harder.
But it's what comes next that scares many.
North Korea has assembled along the border a huge number of artillery systems within striking range of much of greater Seoul's 25 million people. North Korean missiles can reach the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea and the 50,000 in Japan.
Jonathan Pollack, an Asia specialist at the Brookings Institution think tank, wrote this past week that pre-emptive military action simply isn't credible because it would "entail incalculable levels of destruction and loss of life in South Korea and Japan, including to American citizens and military personnel."
An analysis last year by the private U.S. intelligence firm Stratfor, however, raised the argument that the "price paid" for a surgical strike should be weighed with the "future potential costs" of trying to rid the North of its nukes after it has a nuclear strike capability, or of Pyongyang actually using those weapons.
"Following this logic, there is a compelling case to be made that the cost of military intervention right now is justified, purely considering the alternatives," the analysis said. "Almost any price would be acceptable if it meant avoiding a nuclear conflict in the future. But the nature of policymaking is such that leaders are judged by present costs and not by those that could occur down the line."
GETTING CHINA TO DO MORE
President Donald Trump latched onto this ancient idea early on, and at first glance it seems promising.
China is North Korea's food and fuel lifeline and its only major ally. Why not then push Beijing to use its presumed leverage to turn the screws on the North until Pyongyang relinquishes its nukes?
Trump earlier this year appeared to concede that his conviction that China had "tremendous power" over North Korea was flawed after a meeting with China's leader. "After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it's not so easy," Trump said.
The difficulty is partly because regime collapse in Pyongyang would probably push millions of desperate North Korean refugees into China over their shared border. China also is wary of a unified Korea with a U.S.-friendly Seoul in charge.
Outsourcing the problem to China "presumes that Beijing will act on America's behalf in ways that it seems wholly unprepared to take at present," Pollack wrote.
Jake Sullivan, a national security adviser in the Obama administration, and Victor Cha, an Asia specialist in the George W. Bush administration, recently suggested a deal in which China would make payments to Pyongyang and offer security assurances in return for North Korea nuclear checks.
"China would be paying not just for North Korean coal, but for North Korean compliance," they wrote. U.N. officials would monitor compliance.
"If North Korea cheated, China would not be receiving what it paid for. The logical thing would be for it to withhold economic benefits until compliance resumed," Sullivan and Cha wrote.
Each new North Korean long-range missile or nuclear test results in what's trumpeted as the toughest sanctions to date at the U.N. — none of which have stopped North Korea's march to nuclear mastery.
Sanctions advocates say that past efforts have been hamstrung by China, which has long protected its ally diplomatically.
There's skepticism, however, that outside pressure can influence a country that has built a national ethos on defying such pressure.
"Does anyone actually think that with another round of sanctions the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, will suddenly give up power and North Koreans will all become liberal democrats?" David Kang, a Korea specialist at the University of Southern California, wrote recently.
Sitting down to talk with North Korea might seem the easiest solution with the biggest potential payoff. But diplomacy has as rich a history of failure as sanctions.
A 1990s nuclear freeze agreement fell apart after U.S. accusations of North Korean cheating. Six-nation disarmament talks throughout the 2000s finally broke down in acrimony. A 2012 aid-for-disarmament deal blew up days later when North Korea announced a long-range rocket launch.
Last year, the then-top U.S. intelligence official, James Clapper, said that persuading North Korea to abandon its nukes was "probably a lost cause" and that the best that could be done was "some sort of a cap," though he acknowledged that would take serious concessions on the U.S. side.
The potential price of a freeze worries many.
Would Washington, for instance, agree to pull its troops out of South Korea or to end military drills with Seoul, potentially opening the path for the North to achieve its dream, by violence if necessary, of a unified Korea with Pyongyang in charge?
"Even if North Korea agreed to a freeze, how long would we expect it to maintain it this time around?" David Straub, a former U.S. government specialist on North Korea, wrote earlier this year. "Once promised, what more would the regime demand, backed by threats and blackmail, to keep a freeze?"
Engagement proponents say a cap of the North's weapons program could lead to a serious drop in tension, better ties and maybe even economic deals in the region. Since early in his rule, Kim has said economic development is as high a national priority as its nuclear weapons program.
"Rather than threaten war or deepen sanctions, a more productive path is to nudge Kim down the same road that the major countries in East Asia have all taken: a shift from power to wealth," John Delury, an Asia expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, wrote earlier this year. "If Kim wants to be North Korea's developmental dictator, the United States' best long-term strategy is to help him do so."