North Korea has spent much of the year showing off its destructive capabilities. The world, it seems, cannot catch a break from Pyongyang's relentless provocations on the Korean peninsula. The longstanding threats to decimate cities in Japan and South Korea are now accompanied by warnings that North Korea can put an end to life in American cities. What might once have been dismissed as the boasts of a pariah state eager for attention can no longer be ignored. Kim Jong-un, the 33-year-old president of the ironically named Democratic People's Republic of Korea, has left no room for doubt that he possesses the means to turn menacing words into lethal action. Just to dispel any residual uncertainty, he followed up July's successful test of North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missiles – which placed the United States within the range of Pyongyang's weapons delivery systems – with its sixth nuclear test, said to be a hydrogen bomb, on Sunday. In between, Mr Kim sent an ICBM sailing over Japan.
Pyongyang signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985. The NPT is perhaps the most successful multilateral treaty of its kind: virtually all signatories to it have complied with its central call to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. Some states – notably India, Pakistan and Israel – never joined the NPT. Of those that did join, a tiny number were found by the International Atomic Energy Agency to be in breach of the NPT’s terms. The leaders of this notorious club of non-compliant rogue states have always been Iran and North Korea.
Washington, which led the negotiations with Pyongyang and Tehran, has been humiliated by both. The nuclear deal with Tehran, as The National pointed out last month, has not enhanced the world's security or halted the sinister conduct of Iran, which last week revealed plans to "boost" its existing missile power. All that the nuclear deal has done is encourage North Korea (and possibly others) to follow in Iran's footsteps.
The United Nations will no doubt be unanimous in its condemnation of North Korea. But what will that achieve? Sanctions and censure can no longer obscure the fact that the world's options to contain Pyongyang have shrunk. Washington's security commitments to Japan and South Korea will severely be compromised by North Korea's upgraded retaliatory powers. Resolving the current crisis – even in the form of a temporary fix – will depend on whether or not the US is able to conscript China into an international effort to restrain Pyongyang. But a long-term solution seems elusive. The predicament of dealing with Pyongyang is that it exposes the poverty of options while reminding the world that inaction is not an option.
There was a time when the US was in a position to halt the nuclear programmes of North Korea and Iran. It chose, sadly, to delude itself into believing that concessions would stimulate Tehran and Pyongyang to behave responsibly. Concessions have instead emboldened them – and created the need for yet more concessions. How this pattern will be broken is impossible to guess. But there is an invaluable lesson here for Washington: rewarding bad behaviour does not inhibit such behaviour but rather encourages it.
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