Can the U.S. stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear power?
The U.S. strategy for pressuring North Korea remains centered on China, and the hope that the Chinese will tighten sanctions so much that they squeeze Pyongyang into backing down. Many analysts are skeptical this will work: The North Koreans resent Chinese interference, and they have stockpiled a year or more of energy supplies to cope with such pressure tactics.
China doesn't want a nuclear North Korea; but it doesn't want a U.S. strike on its border, either. It seeks a diplomatic solution that will resolve the irreconcilable. That's been a U.S. desire for three decades, too, with no success yet.
History tells us that an unconventional solution was found to avert nuclear war 55 years ago, and interestingly, Washington and Beijing are reviewing those very lessons. According to a senior Pentagon official, a high-level Chinese-American military gathering last week in Washington conducted a joint case study of the Cuban missile crisis.
Has North Korea crossed the nuclear threshold? Pyongyang's recent statements suggest they have, but some analysts have doubts. North Korea hasn't shown it can control an ICBM's re-entry, and it hasn't fitted an actual warhead atop a missile, sources say.
Will the Trump administration try to block North Korea from crossing this final goal line, by military means if necessary? Or will it seek a diplomatic formula that could, over time, leave all sides better off than the cataclysm of war? At this holiday season, that conundrum is hidden in the dark box in the corner.
David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.
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