By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Dec. 16 (Yonhap) -- As North Korea continues to hone its missile and nuclear weapons technology, the United States and its allies have come under growing pressure to devise effective ways to handle the crafty communist nation.
Pundits here agree that North Korea remains firm on its goal of becoming a nuclear power and developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).
But they are split over how best to steer Pyongyang off the path.
"It is now time for the United States and its allies and partners in the region to take the strongest possible steps to deal with this threat posed by the North," said Evans Revere, the former principal deputy assistant secretary of state.
He recalled a 2009 assessment by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that North Korea would master ICBM technology within the next five years.
Pyongyang's successful firing of a long-range rocket last week shows that it is on track to do that, Revere pointed out.
Revere called for a "vigorous policy of containment, deterrence, defense, new military deployments, military exercises and the imposition of new sanctions, including North Korean banks and their links to the global financial system."
The question is whether the U.S. has realistic ways to make North Korea feel the pain and change course.
Pyongyang has survived decades-long sanctions, as it has advanced its nuclear and missile programs.
China apparently views North Korea as a strategic buffer from the U.S. influence in the region.
Beijing does not want Pyongyang's political instability or economic collapse.
In that sense, many predict that China will follow its practice of blocking severe punitive measures against North Korea by the U.N. Security Council for its rocket launch.
"We expect there will be marginal tweaks on the entities and individuals subject to sanction," said Stephen Haggard, a long-time North Korea watcher and professor at the University of California San Diego.
"Then the question becomes whether Beijing will enforce what it signs, and our cynicism on that question is pretty deep," he added.
South Korea also has little room left for further sanctions unless it decides to close an inter-Korean industrial complex in Kaesong, which is politically and economically difficult for Seoul.
Seoul has already cut almost all economic exchanges with Pyongyang and humanitarian assistance for it.
Critics say both Washington and Seoul should reset their North Korea policy.
"I think it's time for us to be realistic about this problem," Joel Wit, a former State Department official specializing in North Korean issues, said. He is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
Wit called the Obama administration's "strategic patience" a failed policy based on an illusion that Pyongyang will bow to pressure.
He stressed the need for engaging Pyongyang for talks on replacing the 1953 armistice on the peninsula with permanent arrangements to end hostilities and linking the effort to limiting, reducing, and eliminating the threat from the North's weapons of mass destruction.
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