During the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation from the Soviet Union was mitigated by what became known as the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The theory of MAD was predicated on the idea that if one side launched a nuclear first strike, both sides would be utterly devastated. The doctrine was effective only to the extent that both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. recognized that the consequences of initiating a nuclear confrontation were too horrific to seriously consider.
It is unlikely then that the world can expect the same kind of rationality from North Korea, which was the subject of a blistering United Nations report that described the rogue nation as one marked by “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape ... and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation." North Korea’s blatant contempt for its own citizenry makes it impossible to trust its willingness to behave with any measure of responsibility on the world stage. MAD only works when the other party isn’t pursuing irrational goals.
The United States has tried to engage North Korea both directly and indirectly in attempts to halt and dismantle its nascent nuclear weapons programs. Many heralded the 1994 agreement reached by the Clinton administration, in which the United States would help construct nuclear reactors in exchange for assurances that North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons program, as a diplomatic triumph. Yet it’s clear now that North Korea was in the process of violating the agreement before the ink on the paper was dry.
Since offering carrots to North Korea has proven fruitless, the next logical step would be to find some kind of stick. But short of military action, the United States has no means by which to sanction North Korea any further, since the nations have no official relations whatsoever. The best hope of getting to North Korea lies with China, its primary trading partner and the only country with any real leverage in demanding change. Yet China has already stepped up to dispute the finding of the U.N. report about Kim Jong-Un’s hermit kingdom, and China seems to have little appetite to take any significant action.
The lesson to be learned from this standoff is that rogue regimes need to be prevented from proliferating in order to ensure the safety of the world at large. This is true of North Korea, Iran and every other nation eager to blackmail the world while brandishing a nuke. Prevention, not containment, is the only viable option. MAD doesn’t work when America deals with madmen.