Many Americans had reassured themselves that North Korea was still years away from threatening the U.S. mainland with a nuclear missile.
That illusion ended Tuesday.
North Korea now has produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside intercontinental ballistic missiles, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded in a confidential assessment, according to The Washington Post. U.S. intelligence now estimates North Korea’s arsenal has up to 60 nuclear weapons.
If all of that is true, North Korea is no longer a gadfly country ruled by a maniacal dictator with a small arsenal of nuclear weapons that cannot be delivered long distances. It is a developing threat to the U.S., to the world. If the analysts are right, North Korea is a belligerent, nuclear foe the U.S. must confront diplomatically, and in a worst-case scenario, militarily.
North Korea and President Donald Trump have dialed up the incendiary rhetoric. North Korea’s news service said earlier this week, “There is no bigger mistake than the United States believing that its land is safe across the ocean.” It threatened retaliation for new sanctions “thousands of times” over.
Trump responded Tuesday with his own harsh words. If North Korea continues to threaten the U.S. “they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” Trump said.
This is a crisis that has been decades in the making, dating back to the 1950-53 Korean War that ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. North and South Korea remain split. Technically, the U.S. and North Korea are still in a state of war. Over time, tensions rose and receded. For years, the U.S. tried to negotiate a halt to North Korea’s nuclear program, but those deals inevitably collapsed.
The big questions: What does North Korea want, and is it willing to risk nuclear war?
For years answering that question was complicated by the secrecy that surrounds Pyongyang. North Korea is one of the most isolated nations on Earth, and it wasn’t clear whether the previous leader, Kim Jong Il, was crazy like a fox or a real madman. It’s clearer now under his son, Kim Jong Un, that North Korea does have a strategy — to bully the world into respecting and fearing his government.
The paramount goal of the current Kim is the same one his father had: to guarantee the survival of the regime. A nuclear North Korea, capable of striking the United States as well as its allies South Korea and Japan, will keep enemies at bay and perhaps attain what the government really wants: to push the U.S. military out of South Korea and reunify the Korean Peninsula. The other favorable outcome for Pyongyang would be to negotiate a deal with the U.S. to provide North Korea security guarantees and financial aid.
A crisis can lead to a climax, which isn’t necessarily bad. The new information about the North’s weaponry, and this week’s bellicose exchange, should alarm China, Russia and other governments. We hope that leads to the talks that reverse these escalating tensions.