Pyongyang undoubtedly then watched carefully as Iraq's Saddam Hussein was overthrown and hanged after a U.S. invasion justified by what turned out to be false allegations that he was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Then Col. Moammar Gadhafi of Libya — another American bugbear who had harbored and then abandoned ambitions of developing a nuclear arsenal — was toppled and murdered during a U.S.-backed uprising.
Kim's nuclear weapons are his defense against going the same way as Saddam and Gadhafi.
Clapper notes that accepting North Korea's inconvenient arsenal and trying to cap it may require "some sort of inducements."
So Trump has difficult choices ahead, given that the decades-old policies of sanctions, threats, isolation, talks and concessions have had little impact.
Failing again under Trump would send a signal of American weakness in a region where the balance of power is in question with China challenging America's right to play a preeminent role in Asian affairs.
And here's where the North Korea question joins an even bigger one for the new president: an increasingly assertive China.
Trump has often suggested China crack down on its smaller neighbor. But while Beijing has no love for the instability North Korea creates, it is also in its interests to have a buffer zone against U.S. forces in the south of the peninsula.
The last thing Beijing wants is a collapsed North Korea, which could result in American troops right on its border in a reunited Korea. So for China, the status quo may be the least-bad option.
But if the new president concludes that a nuclear-armed North is inevitable, it may be forced to propose new arms control and nuclear talks that include Israel, Pakistan, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia and other states that may want the weapons. That is unlikely, although as a candidate Trump criticized the current international nuclear status quo that prevented allies like Japan from developing nuclear arsenals for their own protection.
"At some point we have to say, you know what we're better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea," candidate Trump said when asked whether he would abandon longstanding U.S. policy of a non-nuclear Japan.
So how the Trump team will handle North Korea, the region and nuclear proliferation is not yet known — the president-elect has not addressed the issue specifically since Nov. 8.