The inflamed rhetoric heading out of North Korea continued today with the launch of six missiles over the last 24 hours (both medium and short-range). Additionally, it appears the North Korea has restarted a previously closed nuclear plant, and has begun reprocessing of spent fuel rods. As was reported here, Kim Jong Il's moves to conduct an underground nuclear test over the weekend and frequent missile tests may have several causes, but the reasons behind his actions may prove irrelevant if he continues in this line. To date, it appears that he is using these tests to both strengthen his hand at home (and any successors) while thumbing his nose at Seoul and D.C.
It now seems increasingly clear that North Korea is already proliferating: 'U.S. security studies have identified North Korea as a supplier of missiles and nuclear materials to nations including Syria and Pakistan in exchange for cash.' Of perhaps the greatest concern, are the growing ties between North Korea and Iran. 'North Korea is helping Iran to prepare an underground nuclear test similar to the one Pyongyang carried out last year. Under the terms of a new understanding between the two countries, the North Koreans have agreed to share all the data and information they received from their successful test last October with Teheran's nuclear scientists.' If true, then President Obama won't have his year to see how well Tehran and Pyongyang are going to respond to his overtures. The Telegraph article cited in the previous line continues: 'A senior European defence official told The Daily Telegraph that North Korea had invited a team of Iranian nuclear scientists to study the results of last October's underground test to assist Teheran's preparations to conduct its own — possibly by the end of this year. There were unconfirmed reports at the time of the Korean firing that an Iranian team was present. Iranian military advisers regularly visit North Korea to participate in missile tests. Now the long-standing military co-operation between the countries has been extended to nuclear issues.'
In a 2004 report, Ted Carpenter (VP Defense and Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute) laid out the pros and cons of four options for responding to North Korea: bribery (again), preemptive war, tightened economic sanctions, and regional nuclear balance. Certainly, none of the options are all together palatable, and we've been using the first and third options to some degree or another for the last twenty years. There has been talk lately of employing the fourth option (that is, to give Japan, South Korea and Taiwan support in developing their own nuclear programs). Such an option takes time to develop of course, and in the case of Japan, there would be extensive cultural resistance and the need to change its constitution. China would probably vigorously oppose such a solution, no matter how pure its intent. Carpenter concludes that the US should pull its troops out of SE Asia, and allow events to take their own course (but this was before our involvement in Central Asia).
The United Nations, and activists in Japan and South Korea, have advocated a regional 'nuclear-free' zone (who wouldn't?), but this is pie-in-the-sky thinking. It's not a nuclear-free zone, and neither China nor North Korea is going to suddenly give up its weapons. China's program is well-advanced and could serve as a counter-weight to North Korea, but it's difficult to know which direction China's policy toward Pyongyang is going to go. There are extensive ties between the two nations, and China is generally sympathetic toward 'non-interference' policies (since they want no one to poke around their internal policies). On the other hand, China probably doesn't want a nuclear North Korea under the direction of an unstable Kim Jong Il.
In the end, we would have difficulty protecting our allies and assets in the region if we were to either directly engage in a preemptive strike or if we supported one. We also have a military stretched to its limits, and engagement in a third extensive engagement might very well break it. Further regional proliferation would be a long-term proposal, and is fraught with problems, and bribery has repeatedly failed. We may be stuck with containment and trying to wait for Jong Il to die. If we take the 'wait 'em out' approach, we're also going to need to ensure that we have hard blockade to further proliferation (along with the willingness to defend that blockade), and that we beef up the defense capabilities of our allies, and we need to deal with Iran now, rather than waiting a year. Without those secondary actions, we're going to end up in this position again.