A North Korean soldier looks at the southern side at...

A North Korean soldier looks at the southern side at the border village of the Panmunjom that separates the two countries since the Korean War. The United States sends nuclear-capable B-52 bombers on training missions over South Korea to highlight Washington's commitment to defend an ally amid tensions with North Korea. (March 19, 2013). Credit: AP

North Korea's young, new leader, Kim Jong Un, is reckless, unpredictable and dangerous. The United States shouldn't reward those troublesome traits, and if he targets populations with his missiles, we should be prepared to blast them out of the sky.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in China as tensions escalate over Kim's threats to wage nuclear war against the United States and South Korea. Kerry should put North Korea's lone major ally on notice that our patience has worn perilously thin. Kerry needs to persuade China to do all it can to get Kim to stand down. And he should assure our allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, that we are ready to use our military might in response.

We've seen this sort of brinkmanship too often, usually when North Korea wants something from the West -- say, more food aid or relaxation of economic sanctions. In the past, when the United States or its allies offered aid to calm tensions, North Korea promised to clean up its act -- for instance, to abandon weapons programs -- and then reneged.

This has to stop. The United States should refuse to follow the script. Despite the risks, duplicity shouldn't be rewarded.

The current threat is more ominous than previous ones because U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that North Korea can develop a nuclear warhead small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile.

This is the first standoff since Kim succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011. It's not clear if he's repeating his dad's pattern or if he's a better poker player. What is clear is that a nuclear or missile attack, instead of just a muscle-flexing test, would be suicidal for Kim. North Korea would lose catastrophically. Kim should back down. Only then should the United States consider dealing with him.

The best long-term outcome would be for Kim to stop squandering money on weapons and focus instead on economic development for his impoverished people. We should help only if he agrees to stop making nukes and selling nuclear materials, especially to Iran.

That's a long shot, but getting him to abandon dangerous provocations would be solid start.

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