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Opinion: North Korea shows the true limit of American power

Secondly, North Korea has China on its side, which sees it in its interest to keep hapless North Korea afloat. The United States keeps hoping that the Chinese will one day put pressure on their ally, but they never do. “China Balks at Criticism of North Korea, ” ran a recent headline.

The only game in town, the so-called six-party talks with China, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas, has produced little and is destined to produce less.

So while the United States gins up ever-more stringent sanctions on Iran, which hasn’t got a bomb, it is impotent when it comes to North Korea, which has several bombs. The Bush administration invaded Iraq because it might have a bomb — it didn’t — but couldn’t do anything to prevent North Korea from making one.

Iran insists it isn’t making a bomb, but an unbelieving America says it won’t take military force off the table. Korea says look over here, we have several bombs now, but military force is already off the table.

The Obama team said it’s time to get tough. “We are out of the inducement game,” a senior administration official told the New York Times. “For 15 years at least, the North Koreans have been in the extortion business, and the U.S. has largely played along. That’s over,” he said, sounding much like the Bush administration. But he offered no solutions. American power simply doesn’t extend north of the 38th parallel.

We have photographs of a recent Party gathering in the North, and we pour over them trying to divine pecking orders from who is sitting next to whom. Kim’s son, Jong-un, may or may not be the heir apparent. All we really know is that all our hopes and plans for North Korea might have effectively died still-born, and that maybe, someday, we will be notified of the next of Kim.