Steve Chapman

The North Koreans had no trouble counting to three, and they didn't need a map to see who might come next. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed their fears with a secret 2003 memo, leaked to the press, endorsing regime change there, as well.

President Bill Clinton's administration coaxed the North Koreans into signing an agreement to halt their nuclear program. But they cheated on the deal, and when the Bush administration exposed the fraud, the U.S. initiated a tougher policy. That didn't work either. In 2006, Pyongyang carried out its first nuclear detonation.

When Obama took office, his secretary of state made conciliatory gestures toward North Korea. What happened? Oh, you can guess. Within months, it launched a long-range missile and carried out a second nuclear test.

The assumption among both doves and hawks is that there is some action we can take that will show the regime the error of its ways. Hawks are the latest to have their turn: An editorial in The Wall Street Journal urged the president to threaten military strikes so Pyongyang knows "it faces a choice of giving up the bomb or failing."

But that's not a credible threat. The regime has outlasted many forecasts of failure. And it can respond to any attack by using one of its nuclear weapons. But it doesn't even need that option: With a mass of artillery and rocket launchers within range of Seoul, it is fully capable of turning the capital into a "sea of fire," to use its charming phrase.

The North Koreans are staunchly resolved to build a nuclear arsenal. We may entertain fantasies that we can stop them. But they know better.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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