It is time to ask what the US and North Korea's neighbors in East Asia plan to do if Pyongyang is not willing to abandon its nuclear ambitions. In other words, what is "Plan B" if the six-party talks fail? Since military action against North Korea is far too dangerous, there appear to be only three other options, and none is entirely appealing or without risk.
The first option would be to follow the suggestion of former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton and other hard-liners to impose far stronger multilateral economic sanctions. That strategy has a big defect, however. Both Beijing and Moscow are vehemently opposed to enhanced sanctions. China's opposition is crucial because without Chinese cooperation, coercive economic measures would have little impact on Pyongyang. And given the dependence on Beijing's willingness to continue funding the soaring US treasury debt, American officials are not in a good bargaining position to pressure China into endorsing robust sanctions.
The second option would be to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and rely on deterrence to prevent aggressive behavior. There is a credible argument for that approach. After all, the US has deterred other nuclear bad actors in the past, most notably the Soviet Union and Maoist China, and the vast US strategic arsenal probably could deter the likes of Kim Jong Il.
But being able to deter an outright attack still leaves room for dangerous North Korean mischief. Pyongyang's proliferation activities are especially worrisome. North Korea's apparent nuclear assistance to Syria makes one wonder what other countries – or even more troubling, nonstate actors – might also be beneficiaries of such aid. Living with a nuclear-capable North Korea would be, at the least, a nerve-wracking experience.