North Korea’s failed missile launch has created a pervasive sense of relief and a little smirking in U.S. and East Asian policy circles.  The latest episode was Pyongyang’s fourth unsuccessful launch of a satellite since 1998, and it confirmed that the country’s missile program still faces some daunting challenges.

Even though the North Korean regime contended that the purpose of the attempt was solely to place a satellite in orbit, officials in Washington and East Asia believed that it was a thinly disguised effort to test a multistage missile as a delivery system for nuclear warheads.  That was the reason for the feeling of relief when the test failed.  But such complacency is misplaced.  With respect to both its nuclear- and ballistic-missile programs, Pyongyang is seeking to master technology that is nearly seven-decades old.  Sooner or later, even a decrepit economic and scientific system like North Korea’s will succeed in attaining the twin goals of a nuclear arsenal and an effective delivery system.  Indeed, most experts believe that Pyongyang has processed enough plutonium to build perhaps as many as a half-dozen nuclear weapons and probably has built two or three already.

Unfortunately, the United States has no credible policy for dealing with a North Korea that will possess nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles.  There are three major problems with Washington’s approach.

First, U.S. leaders have foolishly placed the United States on the front lines of the North Korean issue, thereby becoming the primary focus of both Pyongyang’s anger and the regime’s apparent effort to use the possession of nuclear weapons to extort diplomatic and economic concessions.  There is no question that the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea is a disagreeable one and that the United States has some security interests at stake.  But if North Korea is a potential security problem for the United States, she is an even greater one for South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the other nations of East Asia.  Those countries, not the United States, should be taking the lead—and incurring the bulk of the risks—in confronting Pyongyang.

Second, overall U.S. foreign policy creates perverse incentives for North Korea and other countries to build nuclear arsenals.  The United States has such vast, technologically sophisticated conventional military power that no other country—certainly no small, poor state such as North Korea—can hope to match it.  Moreover, U.S. leaders have shown that they are willing to use that great conventional military capability to coerce or even remove regimes that displease Washington.  The military assaults on Serbia, Iraq, and Libya demonstrated that point.  Consequently, potential adversaries of the United States have every reason to conclude that possession of a nuclear arsenal is the only affordable way to deter Washington from contemplating forcible regime change.  That wasn’t the only factor that induced such countries as North Korea and Iran to pursue a nuclear capability, but it likely played a major role.

Finally, the Obama administration, like the preceding Bush administration, has maintained a strategy of threatening Pyongyang with greater and greater international isolation unless the regime relinquishes its nuclear ambitions.  The attempt to isolate North Korea has been only partly successful, though, since Moscow and Beijing have insisted on maintaining significant economic ties with that country—especially providing crucial food and energy supplies.

Furthermore, even if Washington succeeded in its goal of isolating North Korea, the results would likely prove to be not only unsatisfying but dangerous.  It is risky in the extreme to cut off from the international economic system a country that will someday have nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles.  A country in that position would have an enormous incentive to sell those worrisome technologies on the black market.  Potential buyers would include other “rogue” states and, even worse, nonstate terrorist actors such as Al Qaeda.

U.S. policy is creating the worst possible scenario from the standpoint of protecting and promoting American interests.  There is the looming prospect that North Korea will possess a nuclear arsenal and an effective delivery system, but the United States will have no formal economic or diplomatic ties with that country.  Even worse, our informal relations with Pyongyang are likely to be unrelentingly hostile.

That is a blueprint for chronic, nerve-wracking tension, at best, and miscalculation and military disaster, at worst.  Washington needs to revamp its North Korean policy—soon.  Pyongyang’s failed missile test may buy a little time for U.S. leaders to make the necessary policy changes, but they need the wisdom to seize that opportunity.  Unfortunately, they show no signs of doing so.