Step by step, the “unacceptable” becomes the de facto accepted. North Korea was never supposed to get far enough to conduct plutonium-based nuclear tests, but it did. North Korea was not supposed to have a uranium-based nuclear weapons program, but the signs are that it does. North Korea was not supposed to make ballistic missiles, but last December’s test was its most successful yet. All these things have long since over-run the bounds of what the U.S. would have regarded 20 years ago as a profound crisis. In that time, the world has become more dangerous. North Korea’s partners in Iran have been toiling along a similar track. The U.S. no longer bestrides a freshly post-Soviet world as global cop and victor of the Cold War. America is drawing in, and drawing down.
Perhaps the big yawn over North Korea is due to the sense that there is nothing “acceptable” to be done. Nuclear freeze deals and endless rounds of talks, gifts of appeasement, concessions and aid, alternating with layers of sanctions, have failed to stop Pyongyang’s pursuit of ever deadlier weapons. The only real solution would be the end of the North Korean regime. And in the West, there appears to be no official stomach for the risks that would entail; no leadership, no plan, no end game. So on it goes, and one after another, these stories appear, chronicling the signs, the makings of the what-ifs, the if-onlys. Maybe we’ll get lucky, and some deus ex machina will intervene. Maybe not.