WASHINGTON — Despite President Barack Obama's assurance Tuesday that he won't accept North Korea as a nuclear power, he has few options short of war and may have little choice but to find a way to live with the threat.
He won't have to give North Korea a formal seat at the table of nuclear powers. The rogue nation already has the ability to make nuclear weapons, however, and probably will keep it, barring an act of war or an unexpected shift by China to squeeze its neighbor.
Instead, analysts said, the United States and the rest of the world may have to adopt a new Cold War-like strategy of containing a nuclear North Korea, stopping it from sharing weapons and technology with others and using the threat of a nuclear counterattack to protect South Korea.
"At this point, there's very little the outside world can do to stop North Korea," said Chaibong Hahm, a North Korea specialist at the RAND Corp., an independent research organization based in California.
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In defiance of international condemnation, North Korea announced over the weekend that it's starting a program to develop enriched uranium and that it would weaponize all its uranium. The announcement, after its test of another nuclear warhead in May, dominated White House talks Tuesday between Obama and visiting South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
In a joint news conference, Obama called North Korea's actions a "grave threat" and said his goal was to find a way to strip North Korea of nuclear weapons.
"We will pursue denuclearization on the Korean peninsula vigorously," Obama said in the White House Rose Garden with Lee at his side. "North Korea," he said, "has a track record of proliferation that makes it unacceptable for them to be accepted as a nuclear power."
Obama said that the United States, along with South Korea and regional powers such as China, Japan and Russia, would never accept North Korea as a nuclear power and would end the historic cycle of paying off North Korea to stop developing nuclear weapons.
"We're going to break that pattern," Obama said.
That may be as much a recognition of hard reality as it is a statement of principle, since analysts think that North Korea is now intent on remaining a nuclear power, not merely using the threat as a bargaining chip to win concessions or payoffs.
What can the United States do?
Obama said that the United States and other countries were working on plans to interdict North Korean ships carrying arms or arms parts, as spelled out in a United Nations resolution.
Hahm said, however, that the Chinese had watered down the resolution so that ships might stop vessels heading to or from North Korea but couldn't board them to search.
Obama also said that while he wanted to break the pattern of making concessions to the North Koreans, he still was willing to negotiate. Analysts said the best hope might be to get them to stop developing more weapons or working on long-range missile technology. "That's what everybody is working towards: We live with a de facto nuclear North Korea, but try to stop them from developing even more bombs," Hahm said.
There's little hope anymore for a quick agreement leading North Korea to shelve its nuclear ambitions, according to Daniel Sneider, an expert on Korea at Stanford University.
"They have to be patient, hunker down and take the long view," Sneider said. "They have to think of this in Cold War terms. This is more a case of containment and deterrence."
The containment could come from exerting financial pressure to stop North Korea from exporting nuclear weapons technology or missile technology to other rogue nations, particularly Iran. The deterrence could come from the threat of nuclear counterattack by the United States in response to any nuclear strike against allies such as South Korea or Japan.
South Korea's Lee emerged from the White House with a reassurance from Obama that the United States continues to extend its "nuclear umbrella" over those countries. "This has given the South Korean people a greater sense of security," Lee said at the White House.
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