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When Nobody Knows

After a slow start, North Korean nuclear weapons engineers seem to making definite progress. The intervals between successive nuclear tests are getting shorter while the yields obtained are becoming more consistent.  Incremental improvements are also being achieved in their missile systems.

Date Days yield kt
10/9/2006 1.3
5/25/2009 959 3.6
2/12/2013 1359 11
1/6/2016 1058 9
9/9/2016 247 25
4/15/2017 218 ?

Eventually North Korea will probably develop a viable nuclear-armed ICBM. The atomic genie is slowly but surely crawling out of the bottle.  When it does it will undermine the old stabilities.  Something must be done, yet no one quite knows what. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told CBS' Face the Nation that even China worried that Pyongyang was bad for business.

In an interview with CBS' "Face the Nation," Tillerson said he believes Chinese President Xi Jinping agrees the situation in North Korea has "intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken. ... there's a shared view and no disagreement as to how dangerous the situation has become. And I think even China is beginning to recognize that this presents a threat to even to China's interests as well."

North Korea represents a crisis in strategy.  We desire the ends but are ignorant of the means.  The intellectual tools of the old bipolar world are no longer a sure guide to attaining stability.  Nuclear proliferation has undermined great powers, even America's rivals, because it has destroyed their veto power over Armaggedon, a prerogative arguably more important than starting it. In a proliferated world, no one completely rules the roost, not even Russia or China working in concert. The joker is wild.

Entropy has increased -- and with it, risk. Proliferation reduces restraint among failed states like North Korea because they believe they can act with impunity under their new nuke umbrellas. At the same time, it reduces the options of great powers trying to contain extortion because the old signaling systems no longer work.  Kim Jong Un doesn't get the message and is pursuing nuclear armaments precisely so he doesn't have to listen.

North Korea is an example of policy caught on the horns of a dilemma. In that situation one horn is as good as the other. Why is Trump sending Carrier Strike Group 1 to Korea? Because NOT sending it would have made no measurable reduction in risk. So off it goes. The Trump Doctrine seems to be one of risk acceptance, recognizing that doing nothing has a finite but real probability of leading to nuclear conflict.