The exact details of the launch are still coming out, and it remains unclear if the missile was capable of reaching the continental United States. However, the launch itself is not a shock. Advancements in North Korea's weapons program have become a fact of life. The debate about when Pyongyang would theoretically be able to hit the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile has shifted from “if” to “when.” Diplomacy and threats seem to make little difference; at this point, we're better off just watching the weather.
In fact, a fatalism seems to have set in about the North Korean crisis. And when you consider the realities of Pyongyang's weapons program, it's not hard to see why.
First, North Korea has nuclear weapons — perhaps as many as 30, according to a former U.N. weapons inspector — and it's not going to willingly give them up. Kim Jong Un knows what happened to leaders such as Libya's Moammar Gaddafi and Iraq's Saddam Hussein after they gave up their own weapons programs. The ship for denuclearization has almost certainly sailed.
Meanwhile, North Korea may soon be able to put a nuclear weapon on a missile that could hit the United States. Pyongyang keeps testing missiles, dramatically improving its weapons technology in the process. Its July 4 test featured a missile that could probably hit Alaska. As The Washington Post reported this week, U.S. officials expect North Korea to have a reliable, nuclear-capable ICBM as early as next year.
Then there's the catch: Any attempt to use force to destroy North Korea's weapons systems probably would be catastrophic. Ignore the threat of the nuclear missiles themselves for now. Greater Seoul, South Korea's capital region of 25 million people, sits just 30 miles from the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries. In the event of a military strike on North Korea's nuclear sites, Seoul could easily be attacked by Pyongyang's artillery before the guns could be taken out.
As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said this year, any conflict with North Korea would be the “worst kind of fighting in most people's lifetimes.” Few think that is an exaggeration. One study from 2012 estimated that 64,000 people could be killed by artillery fire on the first day of a potential conflict.
Despite Mattis's comments, it is unclear what the Trump administration's plan for North Korea is — even whether a military strike is off the table. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum this week, CIA Director Mike Pompeo suggested he “would love to see” Kim removed from power. That seeming hint at regime change prompted a typically belligerent response from Pyongyang, which had accused the CIA and South Korea of plotting to assassinate Kim just a few weeks ago.
Then there is the president himself, a man who seems to prize his own unpredictability and rashness. As President Trump was announcing in a series of tweets Wednesday that transgender people would not be allowed to “serve in any capacity in the U.S. military,” some at the Pentagon feared they were about to see Trump unexpectedly announce strikes on North Korea (a particularly worrying scenario for those in Seoul), according to BuzzFeed.
So far, however, Trump seems content to keep up an approximate continuation of his predecessor Barack Obama's “strategic patience” strategy — despite declaring in January that the era of said patience was at an end. Efforts to pressure China into taking a harder economic line on North Korea have provided mixed results at best, although the State Department appears to be focusing on pushing smaller countries to comply with sanctions on Pyongyang.
Trump may even be coming to terms with North Korea's weapons program. Normally bombastic on social media, the president seemed nonplussed after North Korea's July 4 missile test. “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” Trump tweeted about Kim.
If Trump is resigned to a North Korea with nuclear weapons, it may not be a bad thing. Some analysts argue that it's best to push the weapons issue to the side for now. Tom Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the Obama administration, wrote for Politico this week that the United States should pursue a long-term policy for Korean reunification, with an emphasis on getting information about the world to ordinary North Koreans. South Korea's new president wants to pursue talks with North Korea, a position that is complementary to a long-term goal of peaceful reunification in some ways.
In the past, Trump has suggested he might be open to talks with Kim or other inventive options. Although there's no guarantee these efforts will work, they seem to be less risky than military actions. And they're certainly better than praying for rain.