North Korea's nukes are nearing the 'point of no return' -- and the US may have one last chance to act

North Korea missile engine test march 2017KCNA/via ReutersNorth Korean leader Kim Jong Un watched the ground jet test of a Korean-style high-thrust engine newly developed by the Academy of the National Defence Science in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on March 19, 2017.

North Korea recently doubled the size of its uranium enrichment plant and pushed through with testing of rocket engines that could soon power intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the US with a nuclear payload, analysts say.

The test came just one day after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told IJR.com, “the threat of North Korea is imminent. And it has reached a level that we are very concerned about the consequences of North Korea being allowed to continue on this progress it’s been making on the development of both weapons and delivery systems.”

Nuclear proliferation experts have told Business Insider that North Korea’s eventual goal for its weapons program is to create an ICBM with a thermonuclear warhead that can reach the US mainland.

North Korea does not yet have that capability, but its latest high-profile tests show steady progress in that direction.

Stratfor Senior Military Analyst Omar Lamrani told Business Insider how the world would change if North Korea achieved its goal of building a weapon that can threaten Americans on American soil.

“North Korea has been perceived in the past as engaging in a nuclear weapons program as a way to trade for concessions from the US and South Korea,” said Lamrani. “But that paradigm doesn’t hold anymore — North Korea decided to invest in a nuclear missile program not to trade it away, but as the ultimate security guarantee and the ultimate deterrent against outside attacks.”

As it stands, the US and its allies would already face a tremendously difficult task in disabling the entire North Korean nuclear weapons program, as hundreds of mobile missile launchers scattered across secret locations in a densely forested, mountainous peninsula make it a nightmarishly complicated to remove in one swift blow.

North korea missile launchKRT via AP VideoIn this image made from video released by KRT on Tuesday, March 7, 2017, North Korea launches four missiles in an undisclosed location North Korea. On Monday, North Korea fired four ballistic missiles in an apparent protest against ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal.

But as Lamrani said, the ability to threaten the US with not just one, but a salvo of nuclear missiles, would represent a loss for the US, and further limit options for outsiders to influence the Kim regime. North Korea’s latest progress towards this feat has deeply troubled US officials and observers.

“North Korea has made such progress now that the US feels that it does not have time anymore,” said Lamrani, who added that an ICBM in the hands of Kim Jong-un would mean the US could no longer credibly threaten North Korea with nuclear force, representing a “point of no return” in multilateral relations.

But even though war with North Korea would be disastrous and potentially cost millions of lives, the window for US intervention is closing fast.

If North Korea develops credible ICBMs, as they may in coming years, the US will be left with three options, according to Lamrani:

1. Continue with diplomacy and sanctions while building up ballistic missile defence.

2. Cave to North Korea’s demands to be seen as a viable state, accept its nuclear program, and recognise the regime internationally.

3. Go to war and risk a nuclear holocaust on US soil, while simultaneously killing millions in North Korea with nuclear arms.

Kim jong unKCNA via Agence France-PresseNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-Un delivers a speech to top delegates of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang

The US currently employs the first option simply because it’s the least worst choice, but Tillerson recently said the US’s “strategic patience” with North Korea has ended.

Additionally, a recent joint report from Arms Control Wonk and Reuters uncovered an extremely complicated network of businesses and obfuscation that the Kim regime uses to rake in millions by selling military radios and other goods, despite sanctions.

Another Reuters report quoted North Korean officials as saying it does not fear or care about US sanctions, and it’s planning a preemptive first strike of its own while their recent tests suggest it’s closer than ever to capabilities that would allow them to overwhelm US missile defences.

While the US can build up all the defences it wants, “missile defence is not a surefire way to negate the threat posed by another country’s nuclear-capable ballistic missiles,” Kelsey Davenport, the director of nonproliferation policy and a North Korea expert at the Arms Control Association, told Business Insider in January.

The second option would cave to perhaps the most brutal regime on Earth and cement the utter failure of decades of diplomacy.

The third option is patently unthinkable and unacceptable.

“Every single one of them is not a great option,” said Lamrani. So as North Korea creeps ever closer to an ICBM, the US must quickly decide whether to act now, or to potentially admit diplomatic defeat down the road.

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