WASHINGTON — North Korea has threatened 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 an 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 US.
Trump's warning came after Pyongyang said it would "make the US pay dearly" for helping spearhead the passage of new UN sanctions against North Korea in response to two recent missile tests.
-- 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."
-- The 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.
Bluster on both sides
Threats may be flying between the US and North Korea, but little has changed in the assessment about Pyongyang's military capabilities and the chances of a US strike.
While US intelligence analysts have claimed that Pyongyang has produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead, it's not believed that the capability has been tested, according to the sources.
However, there's debate within the intelligence community that Pyongyang has the required skill and technology. The Washington Post, which was first to publish details, reported that it was the analysis of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The threat from North Korea's nuclear and missile programs has been a top foreign policy priority for Trump since taking office in January, but the dangers posed by North Korea have taken center stage since the country test-fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month.
North Korea missile tests by the numbers
Weapons experts say both of those missiles, designed to carry nuclear warheads, could theoretically reach the US mainland, based on the range of two recent missile tests.
Threats against Guam
Guam, which houses important US military installations, has long been within the range of North Korea's missiles.
Pyongyang's threats against Guam came after Trump's "fire and fury" comment, but the North Korean statement was dated Tuesday, suggesting it was drafted in advance.
Another was released soon after which broadened the threats leveled against the US mainland.
"We do not hide that we already have in full readiness the diversified strategic nuclear strike means which have the US mainland in our striking range," the statement, which ran more than 1,700 words, said.
It ended with a belligerent threat typical of North Korea's statements: "Should the US finally opt for a reckless military adventure, defying the stern warning of our revolutionary armed forces, the tragic end of the American empire will be hastened."
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 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.
While Tillerson has maintained that the US is open to dialogue, the US military has flexed its muscles by conducting joint military drills with Japan and South Korea and conducting show-of-force operations, sending stealth bombers above North Korea Tuesday.
Those flights were mentioned specifically in North Korea's Wednesday statement threatening the United States with nuclear war.
The statement, attributed to a spokesman for the general staff of the Korean People's Army, also threatened a "preemptive retaliatory operation of justice" if it detected that the US were to attempt a so-called "beheading operation" to take out North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Concerns remain that mixed messaging from the Trump administration, including juxtaposing Tillerson's comments to the President's "fire and fury" ones, and the recent military moves, could stymie the US strategy on North Korea.
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 another 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."
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.
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 maintain that their nuclear arsenal is a deterrent, a way to scare the United States into thinking twice about trying to topple the regime if the country 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."