The somber fact is that the outside world has just about run out of peaceful options for dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat.
Every effort to get Kim Jong Il to give up his aggressive designs has turned out to be a perverse incentive. The six-party talks with the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea, having served his purpose of bolstering prestige, have been abandoned.
Previous agreement to close down his nuclear weapons facility became meaningless when he refused to allow verification by inspection.
After a second nuclear test and a series of missile firings, President Obama has said North Korea's defiance "warrants action by the international community." That, in the first place, would be economic sanctions. But sanctions have limited effect on a dictator who appears not to care about the suffering of his own people.
In 2003, the U.S. led a network of nations in creating the Proliferation Security Initiative, an effort to intercept shipments of nuclear materials. South Korea notably declined to join — for fear of provoking the North. Pyongyang had warned that it would be tantamount to an act of war. But on Tuesday, Seoul finally signed on.
Meanwhile, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are consulting, but apparently not hastening to act.
In a sense, Korea represents the last piece of unfinished business of World War II.
Germany and Korea were left divided in the growing tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. Germany was reunified peacefully in 1990. That left Korea, which the Communists tried to reunify by force. Since the Korean War, the DMZ (de-militarized zone) has been the symbol of East-West confrontation. And North Korea, the last remnant of a Communist empire, presents a formidable challenge to a world that has not witnessed a nuclear attack since Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended Japan's domination over the Korean Peninsula.
If the major powers are proceeding very cautiously today, it's because no one is sure that Kim would not bring the world to the nuclear abyss.