North Korea did not carry out its nuclear test to acquire weapons and deter an external nuclear threat. It faces no such threat. The intention behind the test was to acquire nuclear weapons as an insurance against the United States's attempts to carry out a regime change in North Korea using economic pressure.
North Korea had agreed earlier — once during former US president Bill Clinton's tenure in 1994 and once during the six-party talks — to give up its nuclear-weapons programme if the US engaged in direct talks with it, lifted all sanctions and gave a security guarantee.
Thus North Korea's effort is modelled on Pakistan where the present ruler maintains that any pressure on him to democratise will lead to instability, and when that happens there is no guarantee that nuclear weapons and nuclear materials will not fall into the hands of terrorist non-state actors. That ensures the US stake in the continuing stability of the regime.
From now on, the US will have to engage North Korea and ensure its stability. In order to do so it may be necessary to provide economic assistance to North Korea and create conditions for stability.
North Korea has a notorious reputation for transferring arms to terrorist groups. Its leader argues that it is one of few items of export they have. Subtle blackmail will be used, as Pakistan has done. If the US does not want such things to happen, it should engage North Korea directly, ensure its regime stability and assist it economically.
The US may have thought that since it was successful in forcing Libya to give up its nuclear-weapons programme, it would succeed with North Korea too.
That approach overlooked the fact that North Korea-Pakistan nuclear proliferation had advanced very far while the Pakistan-Libya proliferation had been at an incipient stage.
The US was developing a missile-defence programme essentially against North Korean nuclear missiles. The hawks who had been arguing in favour of the programme will now feel justified. But the missile defence of the US, even if it proves successful, will not solve the problem of North Korean proliferation to terrorist non-state actors. That needs US engagement of North Korea.
A nuclear North Korea will affect the security environment of the whole of East Asia. South Korea will have to decide between strengthening its security relationship with the US and acquiring its own nuclear determent. It will also call for a basic change in Japan's non-nuclear policy based on a constitution imposed by General MacArthur.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is known to favour revising the constitution. The next few months will decide what course of action Japan adopts. South Korea and Japan acquiring nuclear weapons will only help them deter a nuclear attack on them by North Korea. In fact such an attack is a very unlikely prospect.
North Korea will attempt to blackmail the US, Japan and South Korea for substantial economic aid on its conditions, lest it be compelled to transfer nuclear materials and technology to non-state actors. This threat cannot be dealt with either by US missile defence or by Japanese and South Korean acquisition of nuclear weapons.
In other words, the North Korean aim will be to make the US, Japan and South Korea pay for the continuance of Kim Jong-Il's dictatorial regime without any external intervention, on his terms and conditions. A somewhat similar strategy has been successfully practised in the past five years by President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.
Sixty years of nuclear theology developed by western strategists has given no insights into dealing with a blackmailing nuclear state in a world where terrorist non-state actors pose threats to civil societies of major democratic nations. But North Korea is not the originator of this strategy, Pakistan is. The battle over North Korean proliferation was lost by the US in its dealings with Musharraf.