North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was jubilant as he watched his nation test-launch its first intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday. A North Korean state media report described him as "feasting his eyes" on the Hwasong-14 missile as it took off.
"With a broad smile on his face," the report said, Mr. Kim encouraged the nuclear team to "frequently send big and small 'gift packages' to the Yankees."
In developing a missile that appears capable of hitting Alaska, the North Koreans have crossed a major threshold in their push to build an advanced nuclear arsenal. Analysts expect it to take a few more years and many more tests before they can fit a nuclear warhead onto their increasingly powerful missiles. But many warn that it's only a matter of time.
Bolstered by the success of this week's launch, Kim has vowed that North Korea will "demonstrate its mettle to the US," according to state media, and never put its weapons programs up for negotiations.
The United States has responded with harsh words of its own. On Wednesday, Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, warned that North Korea was "quickly closing off" the prospect of a diplomatic resolution to its provocations. She announced that the US would introduce a new Security Council resolution in the coming days, adding that the country was prepared to use force if necessary.
While US officials scramble to identify options for confronting Pyongyang, their escalating rhetoric could obscure what some Korea experts call a difficult truth: North Korea isn't going to give up its nuclear ambitions, at least not anytime soon. And accepting that sooner rather than later, they say, could be key to deescalating tensions.
The ultimate insurance
For North Korea, the logic is simple. Kim may be a brutal dictator, but he’s probably not suicidal. The only fail-safe way to protect his regime, he seems to believe, is to develop a powerful-enough nuclear deterrent to keep the US and South Korea at bay. And as he reminded the world earlier this week, he has no interest in giving that up.
Kim knows all too well what happened to Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. There’s a strong chance that both authoritarian leaders would still be alive and in power had they acquired and held onto deliverable nuclear weapons, some analysts say. Instead, they were violently deposed with American help.
"Ultimately, the North Koreans don't believe in any deal with any outside power" that would require them to denuclearize, says Zhao Hai, a research fellow at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "Owning nuclear weapons is the ultimate insurance for their survival."
North Korea's nuclear program has come a long way since Kim took power in late 2011. Last year, it conducted its fourth and fifth atomic bomb tests. The fifth test, in September, was its most powerful one to date. Meanwhile, the country has conducted 17 missile tests this year alone.
The North has enough fissile material for about 10 to 20 nuclear warheads, according to a report released this week by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Analysts say its medium-range missiles are already capable of delivering nuclear payloads to South Korea and Japan. The challenge the country now faces is figuring out how to make them small enough to fit on missiles that could reach the US.
The push for talks
The closer North Korea gets to reaching that goal, the more leverage it gains over the US – and the more untenable a preemptive US military strike becomes. Any military conflict would likely lead to a catastrophic artillery attack on Seoul, a city of 10 million people that sits 35 miles south of the North Korean border.
That’s why Bong Youngshik, a research fellow at the Institute for North Korean Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, says the Americans are better off coming to the negotiating table sooner rather than later.
Under a proposal initially put forward by China, such talks could begin after North Korea declares a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests and the US and South Korea refrain from large-scale military joint exercises, which Pyongyang regularly denounces as provocations.
"You don't need to test your warheads and ICBMs when you have already mastered them," Dr. Bong says. "They're going to lose nothing in agreeing to freeze their existing program. Then North Korea being a nuclear state capable of striking the US will be a fait accompli."
Russia backed the proposal in a joint statement it released with China on Tuesday. The two countries are expected to advocate for it at the Group of Twenty summit that begins Friday in Germany, but US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said the US is unwilling to negotiate a freeze.
US doubling down?
For now, the US seems intent on doubling-down its efforts to make China rein in its rogue neighbor. In a series of tweets on Wednesday, President Trump suggested that he was re-evaluating the US trade relationship with Beijing because of his displeasure over its response to North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
But Beijing, much to the frustration of the Trump administration, has shown that it's only willing to push the North so far – a lesson also learned by the Obama administration. Chinese leaders worry that applying too much economic pressure could cause the Kim regime to collapse. A refugee crisis on China's border would likely follow, as well as a reunited Korea under an American security umbrella.
As the US scrambles to figure out its next step, Mr. Trump called on countries to demonstrate to North Korea that there were consequences for its "very, very bad behavior" at a press conference in Poland on Thursday.
"As far as North Korea is concerned, I don't know, we will see what happens," Trump said when asked about a military response. "I have some pretty severe things that we are thinking about. That doesn't mean we are going to do it. I don't draw red lines."