After Pakistan and India both acquired nuclear weapons in the 1990s, nuclear non-proliferation efforts focused on a trio of autarkic rogue states: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. George W. Bush identified them famously as the "axis of evil" in his first State of the Union speech in January 2002. Bush was faced with the dilemma of choosing which of the three should he make an example of in order to encourage the others to back away. Bush naturally enough chose the weakest of the three, Iraq, which had already been defeated a decade before in a war presided over by his father. In 1994 Clinton faced the task of deciding what to do about a North Korean regime that was bent on developing a nuclear weapons capability. Pentagon forecasters estimated that a war on the Korean peninsula would cost up to one million lives including 100,000 Americans. Instead, Clinton decided upon a regime of arms control talks between the two Koreas, China, Japan, the U.S. and Russia. A scheme was developed to bribe Pyongyang into giving up its nuclear ambitions in exchange for a South Korean civilian nuclear reactor, food aid and financial aid.
In Iraq the Bush administration took a different approach and invaded in March 2003. The sanctions-weakened Ba'athist regime was easily overthrown but nothing was quickly established to take its place. Jihadism loves a vacuum and moved right in. The Iraq war has cost some 4,000 American lives and up to 100,000 Iraqi lives in the aftermath. And it turns out that there was no WMD threat: no nuclear weapons, no biological weapons, and even no chemical weapons. Saddam Hussein was a ruler who like Napoleon and Hitler believed in living on the edge and taking wild chances. Like them he was eventually overthrown after having set off a disastrous war in Iraq by flaunting the armistice agreement he signed in 1991.
This still left North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs in place. In North Korea the Bush administration adopted the Clinton administration approach and bribed North Korea again after a 2003 confrontation. But towards Iran Bush took a much more cautious approach, which was then adopted by the new Obama administration in 2009. Using Netanyahu's threats to embark on an Israeli war against the Iranian nuclear effort as leverage, Obama formed an international coalition to provide a stiff sanctions regime against Tehran. Tehran has not backed down yet, but is in serious economic difficulties. Will the Mullahs ignore the economic penalty and press on as did the Kim regime in North Korea?
Beijing has proven adept at using the North Korean regime as a device to keep Japan and the United States off balance and force them to deal with it. Many have advocated that we pressure Beijing into pressuring Pyongyang into negotiating seriously and then keeping its agreements. But Beijing may lack the leverage to do this. Or it may simply lack the desire.
Short of physically invading and overthrowing a regime bent on acquiring a military nuclear technology, all Washington and the international community can do is raise the costs of such an effort substantially. By raising the costs the crazies are separated from the merely ambitious or frightened. They become a manageable number--in this case two. Now if we can avoid the counsel of those who simply view foreign policy rhetoric as a cynical means of getting back into power, we should be alright.