Suddenly, by August 2017, North Korea had successfully tested several Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and it seemed likely that it had miniaturized an atomic warhead to mount on such a missile. Alarm bells started ringing much more loudly. Unlike defenses against short- and medium-range missiles, the defense against ICBMs is non-existent. All that exists is deterrence—the certainty that North Korea would be wiped off the map if North Korea attacked the United States with a nuclear weapon.
Several questions, great and small, arise from the North Korean ICBM tests. First, how did the North Koreans suddenly develop an ICBM missile and miniaturize a war head? One theory is that a bankrupt and bent missile engine factory in Ukraine sold a sample to the North Koreans. How the North Koreans got a rocket engine as big as a house from the Ukraine to North Korea without anyone noticing is an interesting question. If the Russkies were helping, then it could go overland by rail (or maybe even by cargo plane) to Vladivostok, and then by sea. Or it could go to the port of Sebastopol on the Black Sea and then by sea to North Korea. Giving North Korea the technology to put an atomic weapon on an American city would be considerably more of a hostile act than just meddling in an American presidential election.
If the Russkies were not helping, then does that mean that a few greedy managers in a Ukrainian rocket engine factory free-lanced this without anyone in the government of Ukraine noticing? In any case, the engine would have had to go out through the port of Odessa. How do you move a rocket engine as big as a house across Ukraine? In the end, it seems that, if the bent factory in Ukraine helped, then it would be by loading the plans on a flash-drive and selling that to the North Koreans through some intermediary. North Korean machine-tools could do the rest.
Second, what do the North Koreans want? That’s a little murky. One authority argues that “what North Korea wants is for us to stop threatening them and to talk with them.” What forms do these threats take? North Korea attacked South Korea in 1950. Since the end of that war the United States has conducted military exercises with the South Korean military forces. Hard not to see these as a) defensive, and b) just a demonstration of our commitment to an ally. OK, but the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, then never left; the U.S. attacked Iraq on a specious pretext in 2003; and the U.S. attacked Libya, then walked away while the place burned. Still, none of these places bordered on/were backed by China. An American attack on North Korea is a fantasy. Then, North Korea has rejected following the Chinese path to economic transformation. If South Korea could go from being a backwater to an important industrial nation then so could North Korea. Why hasn’t North Korea changed course?
Third, is there an alternative to war? Everyone hopes so. An American pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities doesn’t seem any more likely to succeed than would an attack on Iran’s facilities. Then the North Koreans would respond. Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, is in easy range of the massed artillery batteries of North Korea. Then, the US would invade North Korea? What might be the response of China? Do American voters want another large war?
We are being driven by reality toward another version of President Obama’s Iran deal. So be it. For now. Eventually, the United States may “meet with Don Barzini, Philip Tataglia, all the heads of the Five Families.”
 See: “The Peacemaker” (dir. Mimi Leder, 1997).