(CNN)North Korea is threatening to launch preemptive military strikes against the United States, including targeting the US Pacific island territory of Guam, the latest salvo in an increasingly aggressive back-and-forth between Pyongyang and Washington.
A statement issued by state-run media KCNA Wednesday ratcheted up the tension by saying that North Korea would “turn the US mainland into the theater of a nuclear war” if it were to uncover any sign of any impending US attack.
Pyongyang’s provocation followed the most aggressive language yet from US President Donald Trump on North Korea, who vowed to unleash “fire and fury” if North Korea continued to threaten the United States.
— North Korea threatened to strike US military installations on the island of Guam after the US flew B-1B bombers over the Korean Peninsula Tuesday in a show of force.
— Speaking from his golf resort in New Jersey Tuesday Trump warned North Korea to stop threatening his country or “they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
— President’s comments followed claims by US intelligence sources that North Korea has developed the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead that can fit atop a missile.
How much damage can North Korea’s weapons do?
Though the threat from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs has been a top foreign policy priority for Trump since taking office in January, the dangers posed by North Korea have taken center stage since the country test-fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month.
Weapons experts say both of those missiles, designed to carry nuclear warheads, could theoretically reach the United States mainland.
The current round of hostile rhetoric comes after the United Nations Security Council voted to impose a new round of sanctions on North Korea in response to the two missile tests, for which Pyongyang said it would “make the US pay dearly.”
The Trump administration has vowed to take a multi-pronged approach to rein in North Korea’s weapons programs, through the exertion of “peaceful pressure” in the the hope that North Korea returns to the negotiating table once the time is right.
“We’re trying to convey to the North Koreans we are not your enemy, we are not your threat, but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week.
Concerns remain that mixed messaging from the Trump administration, including juxtaposing Tillerson’s comments to the President’s “fire and fury” ones, could throw a wrench into those plans.
North Korea watchers have long maintained that a war between the US and North Korea is unlikely, largely for two reasons. The first being that both sides recognize how devastating a second Korean War would be, the second being that the Kim regime, which values its survival above all else, knows it would lose.
But experts worry Trump’s fiery rhetoric could hurt the US by feeding North Korean insecurities and adding instability to an already tenuous situation.
“We have two inexperienced, impulsive presidents in control of these massive military machines,” Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, told CNN on Monday.
“It’s one thing to make a mistake intentionally, its another thing to stumble into a conflict … either one — Kim Jong Un or Donald Trump — could miscalculate and let loose a war unlike anything we have seen since World War II.”
How advanced is North Korea’s nuke program?
A propaganda win
Trump’s fiery rhetoric also plays into the long-standing North Korean narrative that the nation is under the imminent threat of invasion by the United States.
While nearly all historians say the north invaded the south, North Korea tells it citizens that the Americans actually started the Korean War, which started in 1950 and lasted three years. The regime has spent decades telling its citizens that the United States is preparing for the next one.
That’s how Kim Jong Un justifies the economic hardship and isolation that North Korean to his citizens, saying they need to spend money on defense to protect themselves.
Trump’s words add fuel to that fire, says Jean Lee, a global fellow for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the former chief of the Seoul and Pyongyang bureaus for The Associated Press.
“This is precisely what the North Koreans want. As twisted as that may seem, I am sure that North Korea is happy about the response from Donald Trump,” Lee told CNN.
How Honolulu is preparing for a nuclear strike
What will it take?
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official name, was estimated to have between 13 and 30 nuclear weapons at the end of 2016, according to the Institute for Science and International Security. But North Korea keeps secret the number of nuclear weapons that it has built, and there is little, if any, reliable public information about it.
A peaceful way to rid the Korean Peninsula of those 13 to 30 nuclear weapons — and stymie North Korea’s future nuclear aspirations — has long been considered one of the holy grails of Asian diplomacy.
North Korean diplomats have long maintained that their nuclear arsenal is a deterrent, a way to scare the United States into thinking twice about trying to topple the regime if they could be the victim of a nuclear attack in response.
The sticking point is both sides’ preconditions.
“We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on negotiating table. Neither shall we flinch even an inch from the road to bolstering up the nuclear forces chosen by ourselves, unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the US against the DPRK are fundamentally eliminated,” North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said earlier this week.
The United States, meanwhile, is willing to talk to the North Koreans — if they commit to denuclearization up-front.
“Their peace and prosperity is best served by being engaged with us and having a denuclearized North Korean peninsula, it’s on the assumption that the North Koreans stop their missile tests and stop their nuke tests and stop their development of nuclear weapons,” Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told reporters Tuesday. “We are not going to come to the table until the North Koreans have committed to that.”
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