image_pdfimage_print more… In October 2006, North Korea (DPRK) exploded an underground nuclear device, simultaneously becoming the world’s ninth nuclear weapons state and most volatile threat in the Asia-Pacific. The day of the test, the New York Times characterized North Korea as “arguably the most unstable and most dangerous” nuclear power, yet expressed doubt about Pyongyang’s ability to “fabricate that bomb into a weapon that could fit atop its missiles.” At the time, the primary fear was North Korea’s perceived willingness to disseminate nuclear know-how to other potential proliferators.

A decade later, North Korea has conducted four additional weapons tests (in 2009, 2013, and two in 2016), each demonstrating an increasing proficiency with nuclear technology. After last month’s test, it is clear that North Korea is rapidly acquiring a nuclear arsenal capable of striking American allies in Asia and will soon be able to reach the U.S. homeland. While North Korea made strides in nuclear and ballistic missile technology, Washington adopted a policy of “strategic patience” tantamount to inaction. Unfortunately, time has run out on hoping North Korea will decide to abandon its nuclear ambitions. The next administration will need to craft a proactive strategy for halting and hopefully reversing the growth of Pyongyang’s nuclear force.

Some analysts have begun to question whether a preemptive war is the best response to the growing DPRK threat. Proponents argue an air war targeting the country’s major nuclear facilities could effectively neutralize it. This call echoes an earlier one from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter who, in 2006, advocated with former Defense Secretary William Perry for a surgical strike on the DPRK to destroy the “carefully engineered test bed for North Korea’s nascent nuclear missile force.” They correctly warned that a failure to respond would only result in “more nuclear warheads atop more and more missiles.” While some still see the military option as the only surefire solution to the nuclear threat, it is no longer a viable option.