On the very same day that most Americans were celebrating their independence with processed meats, tacky America flag clothing, and rocket explosions, the authoritarian's paradise known as North Korea was busy launching a much larger explosive of its own. The People's Democratic Republic of North Korea has had nuclear weapons for over a decade now, but finally succeeded on July 4th in launching it's first Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile. This is a serious and dramatic development in the saga of North Korea's nuclear weapons program as this means North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un could now target the United States (well, just Alaska for now). This week, let's solve this North Korea situation.
We've covered nuclear weapons several times before, mostly in relation to Iran, but the difference here is that North Korea has successfully tested several nuclear devices over the years. They already posses the deterrence factor of nuclear weapons, which makes forced regime change next to impossible (hence the reason for getting them in the first place). Until now, North Korea could not directly attack the United States, but it's ability to target America's primary Asian allies (Japan, South Korea...) has essentially been deterrence enough.
They are able to do this by attaching the nuclear warheads to short-range or intermediate-range missiles. An ICBM, on the other hand, is a specialized type of missile designed for extremely long-range strikes. They are essentially the reason countries like the United States and Russia can strike any location in the world. Of course, North Korea didn't actually launch their missile at Alaska (this would freak everyone out and probably result in nuclear war). Instead, they fired the missile almost vertically (landing in the ocean between North Korea and Japan), but the weapon certainly had the range to reach part of the United States.
What does this development actually mean? Though it certainly causes major anxiety for the United States, it doesn't exactly change the calculus of deterrence. America has already been deterred against direct action with North Korea due to its constant threats on other Asian nations. And it's not like the United States hasn't lived under the specter of a nuclear holocaust before (or still isn't for that matter). We like to pretend that North Korea is a deranged nation full of psychopathic rulers (North Korea certainly encourages this idea). But the awkward reality is that the North Korean regime is mostly rational and predictable in its actions.
So can North Korea really be stopped? Well nearly all meaningful military means are off the table. Even if North Korea didn't have nuclear weapons, they possess a series of massive artillery sets which could level the South Korean capital of Seoul. Sanctions aren't exactly the best course either. Most of the world has issued so many sanctions against North Korea that the country has basically learned how to fend for itself, making further sanctions less effective. Add to this the contradictory (though sadly necessary) program of providing food aid to North Korea, and you have a situation where it's very difficult to provide any more meaningful pressure on the regime without risking its collapse (which would also trigger the use of nuclear weapons).
The only realistic way is via substantial pressure from the Chinese government (who are basically the only ones somewhat supporting North Korea at this point). But China has lived under the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons for years. It really doesn't matter that much to China if the United States suddenly finds itself under direct North Korean nuclear threat. In fact, it may even level the playing field between China and America regarding North Korea. So their incentive to risk their own safety just for the comfort of the United States is hardly encouraging. In fact, China's trade relations with North Korea suggest it is assuming its belligerent neighbor will be around for awhile.
The sad reality is that the time to stop North Korea was years ago. Kim still has a couple thousand miles to go before his nation can directly target the American west coast (and even further to target D.C.), but the technological limitations to reach this next step are becoming smaller. Unlike the nuclear deal with Iran, North Korea cannot be pressured in the same way because the entire society is commanded from the top (as opposed to Iran's somewhat democratic society). And unlike Iran, which has been wanting to join the international trade system for years, North Korea seems content to only have a few pseudo-friends in the world. So in short, the United States will probably just have to live with these weapons, just like in the days of the Cold War. But if the past is any indication, perhaps the inevitable end of the brutal North Korean regime will not result in nuclear war. After all, the nuclear-armed Soviet Union collapsed once, and the world is still standing.