Current unpreparedness is absurd. No contingency plans exist for so predictable a development as the North Korean nuclear test. Urging North Korea and Iran to negotiate is futile: nations rarely give way to threats. A closed economy like North Korea’s cares very little about sanctions; a few million people will starve, but so what? On the contrary, children dying from hunger will make great PR for the communists: hunger deaths are clearly attributable to international sanctions; the media will pay no attention to the mismanagement of North Korean state farms. Cutting off aid to North Korea is senseless: it would get cash by selling nuclear bombs and technology. Suspending aid didn’t stop the Pakistani nuclear program.

A strange thing about the North Korean test is its size, 0.4-0.6kt. There are two options: small size or a particularly bad assembly. The second option seems more likely: the communists hardly expected to enter the history with the cheapest test yet. The long delay between accumulating the fissile material and the test also suggests technical problems. If so, North Korea doesn’t have bombs yet, and the US can still destroy the rogue nuclear program.

A worse possibility is that the frugal North Koreans carefully developed a tactical nuclear device akin to America’s W-72 0.6kt warhead. An impoverished country would naturally seek to make the most bombs possible from its limited fissile material. Terrorist customers also prefer the backpack nukes. For a long time, precision engineering was a major impediment to producing nuclear micro-charges. North Korea doubtlessly has the necessary technology.

An underground explosion points to the same worrisome conclusion. Open-air tests suit publicity needs better. If, however, North Korea is working on micro-charges and needs trans-uranium isotopes, an underground explosion is the usual way to get them.

Diplomatic talks are pointless at that stage. Even if North Korea agrees to have its nuclear sites inspected—which it hardly will—the world doesn’t know how much finished fissile material is already hidden, waiting for customers. Stick and carrot is the proper policy: destroy North Korean nuclear facilities on one hand and offer to buy the fissile material at a sky-high price on the other.

The North Korean nuclear program has relied on technical cooperation with Pakistan. China previously assisted Pakistan develop a nuclear bomb to counter India, China’s enemy. Russia is also China’s enemy, and China will support nuclear acquisition by Asian states; China in fact aids Iran’s nuclear program. America’s timid China policy is astonishing. The Chinese army is nonsense. The US could and should punish China for proliferation with air strikes against Chinese nuclear facilities. China’s biggest fear is local unrest: the colossal state breaks down every couple of centuries or less. China would not counterattack but accept the lesson.

Faced with the Gordian knot, Alexander cut it. The West should consider that approach with North Korea’s nuclear program.