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Today we are again approaching a crisis with North Korea, and again the cause is its nuclear program. A war in 1994 would have been terrible, but we were able to avoid it with diplomacy (the Agreed Framework, from which the United States and North Korea withdrew in 2002). Today a war would be no less than catastrophic, possibly destroying the societies of both Koreas as well as causing large casualties in the U.S. military. It is imperative that we employ creative diplomacy to avert such a catastrophe.

The pressure boiled over this past week when Kim Jong Un announced plans to test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. In reply, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted, “It won’t happen,” seemingly suggesting he might take military action against North Korea’s missile program.

The threat is real enough. North Korea has built more than a dozen nuclear bombs and conducted five nuclear tests, several at about the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb. Pyongyang also has a robust ballistic missile program — it has fielded a large number of medium-range missiles and is testing long-range missiles.

So the question is not whether but when Pyongyang will have a nuclear-armed ICBM. Its ICBM program is not yet operational, and it must take many difficult steps to make it so. But this is evidently a high-priority program moving at a fast pace. There is no reason to doubt that it will reach an operational capability, perhaps in the next few years.

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