The United States and its allies are in the worst situation yet in the long and unsuccessful attempt to curb North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons and advanced missiles. Successive U.S. presidents tried isolation and sanctions, inducements and incentives. Nothing worked, and now North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is cozying up to a new benefactor, President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

This is bad news for the multitude of U.S. and U.N. Security Council sanctions intended to restrict North Korea’s exports and imports, limit its financial dealings and root out its illicit cyber and crypto activities. Mr. Putin cares little for the West’s sanctions and is desperate to acquire ammunition and missiles from Mr. Kim’s stockpile. The White House announced earlier this month that North Korea was already sending medium-range ballistic missiles to Russia for use against Ukraine. Mr. Kim also reportedly shipped more than 1 million artillery shells to Russia.

It is not known precisely how Mr. Putin will reward North Korea for this, but he could send desperately needed supplies such as oil or Russia’s sophisticated weapons technology. Last week, North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui visited Moscow, where her Russian hosts reiterated their commitment to developing relations with North Korea in all areas, including “sensitive” ones. North Korea said Mr. Putin might visit Pyongyang at an unspecified “early date.”

President Biden has not shown much interest in Mr. Kim. At this point, he has almost no leverage over him. The best options are long gone. Eventually, China might brake Mr. Kim’s behavior, but the United States must first stabilize its relations with Beijing.

Indeed, Mr. Kim seems to have given up on negotiations with the United States after the failed 2019 Hanoi summit with President Donald Trump. The United States has stated repeatedly that it is open to negotiations on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that could lead to eventual lifting of sanctions. But Mr. Kim insists he will not relinquish his country’s nuclear program — estimated at 20 to 60 nuclear warheads.

With diplomacy dead, the United States and South Korea are scrambling to shore up deterrence through regular military drills. Last year, the United States deployed a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time since the 1980s. Mr. Kim has responded with yet another round of threatening maneuvers, testing a solid-fueled ballistic missile and experimenting with a nuclear-capable undersea unmanned vessel.

On top of all these worries, two experts on North Korea, Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker, warned on Jan. 11 that Mr. Kim “has made a strategic decision to go to war.” On the Stimson Center website 38 North, they write, “We do not know when or how Kim plans to pull the trigger, but the danger is already far beyond the routine warnings in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo about Pyongyang’s ‘provocations.’” Their argument is based on Korean official pronouncements, which they say have added a serious “war preparation theme.” They add, “The evidence of the past year opens the real possibility that the situation may have reached the point that we must seriously consider a worst case.” In a rebuttal, Thomas Schäfer, Germany’s former ambassador to North Korea, wrote that Mr. Kim is intentionally building up tension to drive a hard bargain should Mr. Trump return to office, repeating past cycles of threat and negotiation.

The United States should prepare for either possibility as tension rises. A modest military confidence-building agreement reached in 2018 by North and South Korea collapsed in November. Last week, Mr. Kim called for a change to the North Korean constitution to declare South Korea an enemy state and formally abandoned the idea of peacefully reunifying the two halves of the peninsula. “We don’t want war but we have no intention of avoiding it,” Mr. Kim said, according to North Korea’s state news agency.

Moon Chung-in, a professor emeritus of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul and a former presidential adviser, said in an interview published by the South Korean news outlet Hankyoreh that he did not see war as imminent but fears the nations could stumble into conflict by accident or miscalculation. “An unintended clash has the potential to erupt into a regional war, a full-scale war, or even a nuclear war,” he said.

North Korea is now an established nuclear weapons power and continues to expand its arsenal of missiles and other technology, such as hypersonic glide vehicles. Mr. Kim might use this growing muscle for leverage and threat, as in the past. Or his saber-rattling could portend something much worse. The United States can hope that Mr. Kim’s recent provocations amount to just more bluster. But the Biden administration should plan as though they are more serious.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through discussion among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board: Opinion Editor David Shipley, Deputy Opinion Editor Charles Lane and Deputy Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg, as well as writers Mary Duenwald, Shadi Hamid, David E. Hoffman, James Hohmann, Heather Long, Mili Mitra, Eduardo Porter, Keith B. Richburg and Molly Roberts.

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