There are crises where the end point can be seen and generally agreed by both sides but the path to that point seems difficult, perhaps impossible. And then there are crises with no agreed end point or route to resolution. These are the most dangerous crises.
The Israeli-Palestinian problem is an example of the first. Both sides claim they want agreement to a two state solution. The solution is generally one of a contiguous, unarmed Palestine that recognizes a Jewish Israel with pre-1967 war borders adjusted by land swaps and compensation. But this has been the case for years and we appear to be no closer to finding a path to get there.
Interestingly, the Iran nuclear issue is the same type crisis. The outcome that both sides say they want is Iran without nuclear weapons and under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Iran has not withdrawn from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) but has not been fully forthcoming on safeguard inspections. Although the United States says that Iranian recalcitrance is a violation of the NPT, the IAEA has not used this terminology. Iran insists that the NPT gives them the right to nuclear enrichment, a point a clear reading of the treaty would tend to support. But the U.S and the western negotiators disagree and in any case do not believe the right extends to enrichment beyond 5 percent, except for small amounts up to 20 percent for medical applications. The solution is simple. Iran should be allowed 5/20% percentenrichment in return for full IAEA inspection in accordance with the NPT and additional protocols. Alas, both sides are dug in. Neither seems able to make the first move. No path to resolution is discernible.
The crisis on the Korean peninsula is totally different. North Korea withdrew from the NPT, has an active weapons program including a small number of devices in unknown states of weaponization as well as an aggressive missile development program. North Korea's periodic outbursts of bellicose rhetoric have reached new heights in recent weeks and violent acts such as the 2010 sinking and shelling, may be forthcoming. North Korea has demanded withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the South, has withdrawn from the 1953 armistice that ended the fighting, cut the "hot lines" with the South and made increasing threats.
The U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea have insisted that the North abandon and dismantle its nuclear weapons programs and long-range missile tests. South Korean and U.S. forces have developed contingency plans to quickly respond to any aggression, something that was not done in 2010. In short, there is little or no common ground between the two positions and no apparent path to getting to one without a complete reversal by one side. This is the most dangerous of crises.
Sanctions have not caused the more developed Iran to alter course. They are even less likely to succeed with the primitive North Korea. Negotiations and compromise may work with Iran. That course has been tried repeatedly with North Korea and failed repeatedly. There is no reason to expect a different outcome now. North Korea must be told sternly, repeatedly and quietly that they cannot retain a nuclear weapons capability and that any aggressive action against the South or other allies will be met with a more than proportional response. Any missile they launch that might be aimed at an ally will be shot down. Any missile suspected of being fitted with a nuclear weapon will be destroyed on the ground. And we should specify what actions, including nuclear transfers to other states or groups, will result in the destruction of their nuclear facilities.
This stance is designed to make North Korea realize that their game of extracting concessions by threat and bluster is over, that the possession of nuclear weapons is a threat to regime survival, not its protection, and that any attempt to use nuclear weapons will invite the most severe consequences.
Then we patiently sit and let the message sink in. Walk softly...