Isolated and secretive, North Korea presents the United States with a unique challenge we cannot ignore. The North Korean nuclear arsenal is becoming steadily more alarming, and it is past time for the United States to get serious about the threat.
The Obama administration has pursued a policy of "strategic patience," which includes applying international sanctions and waiting for North Korea to move away from its nuclear program or for the government to collapse. It hasn't been enough.
The good news is that the region has been relatively stable. But our policy has not changed North Korea's behavior. Economic sanctions imposed in response to nuclear tests and missile launches are hurting, but they have not threatened the regime's survival.
Meanwhile, North Korea's nuclear arsenal continues to grow in defiance of United Nations resolutions; and so does its capacity to threaten its neighbors and even the U.S. It is time to revise our strategy.
For North Korea, its nuclear program is essential to its identity as a nation. It has an estimated 10 to 20 nuclear devices and is developing a new nuclear weapon every six weeks or so. It has both short- and long-range missiles and is constantly trying to improve their effectiveness. It hopes to be able to target the U.S. mainland. An underground nuclear test and unsuccessful satellite launch early this year suggest it is seriously pursuing that goal.
North Korea is the weakest power in Northeast Asia, but it has played its limited hand fairly well. With no real allies, it may well be the most isolated nation on Earth. Life for most of its citizens is unrelentingly harsh. Poverty is widespread, and the country's per-capita GDP is among the lowest outside of Africa, according to the CIA.
Little is known about its young ruler, 32-year-old Kim Jong Un. He is mysterious, unpredictable and dangerous. He has consolidated power, purging many government officials and promoting others. He obviously wants to keep control and has continued to maintain a rigidly nationalistic and repressive state.
China has more influence with North Korea than any other country, in part because up to 90 percent of North Korea's international trade is with China. In the U.S., we are continually urging China to get tougher with North Korea.
But while China is no fan of North Korea's nuclear program, it does not see the country as an imminent threat. China benefits from its neighbor's stability, fearing a collapse there would create chaos and violence on the Korean peninsula and send refugees surging across the border into China.
For the United States, North Korea's nuclear program should be cause for alarm but not panic. We can't do much to influence such an isolated country, but we should not ignore the options we do have. We urgently need to pursue a political process aimed at freezing North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
And like it or not, we can't solve the problem of a nuclear-armed North Korea without talking to them. Talking with North Korea will not be popular, but it has become necessary.
Previous multi-party talks addressing North Korea's nuclear program fell apart in the face of North Korean intransigence. Since then, the U.S. has said we will return to the negotiating table only if North Korea moves away from its nuclear weapons program, a precondition that has ensured no talks.
To continue that stance would be a mistake. We should be prepared to resume talks without preconditions. It may be that the Obama administration is moving away from such preconditions. But we have not yet sat down to talk.
None of this is to suggest that talks with North Korea would be easy or would yield prompt results. We should continue using sanctions and attempting to hold government leaders responsible for their decisions. But along with pressure, we need to add a strong political and diplomatic component to our efforts.
At the same time, the U.S. and its partners must be prepared in the event North Korea collapses. The immediate challenge for the international community would be to seize or destroy North Korea's nuclear arsenal to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.
In all of these efforts, we need to work closely with other Asian nations - especially China. We must find a way to persuade North Korea that the path to security and stability lies in moving away from isolation and secrecy, not in pursuing nuclear strength.
Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Senior Advisor, IU Center on Representative Government. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.