North Korea: If it can back up its threats, this is no longer one for the long-term planners

North Korea: If it can back up its threats, this is no longer one for the long-term planners

North Korea: If it can back up its threats, this is no longer one for the long-term planners

Updated 9 August 2017, 17:55 AEST

If Kim Jong-un really has achieved, or is about to achieve, his goal of becoming a fully nuclear-capable nation, assumptions about containment are out the window, writes Philip Williams.

For as long as the Kim family has ruled North Korea, Pyongyang has warned of the threat to the nation's existence posed by the United States, and its allies like Australia.

The US and its friends have provided a perennial source of demonisation, a handy excuse for the massive militarisation of that small nation and the protection and promotion of the Kims.

Only they can protect the workers' paradise against the barbarians. And as part of that process joining the nuclear weapons club has been a priority.

After all, no-one messes with countries that can wipe out millions with the press of a button. Especially one seemingly as volatile as the DRPK.

But the speed with which North Korea has developed its missiles has caught everyone off guard.

This is no secret program. Kim Jong-un wants the world to know it is close to reaching full ICBM nuclear status.

The delivery system is one thing, but making the nuclear warheads small enough to fit on those missiles was a challenge the Western intelligence agencies had thought was a couple of years off.

A far more specific threat

But that may well be wrong. Now the North Koreans are openly talking of a possible attack on Guam, home to a very large US military base.

That is a far more specific threat than the usual bellicose promise to turn the US into a sea of fire.

Until recently, not many took that seriously. Just the usual rhetorical flourish favoured by the regime and mainly for domestic consumption.

But this is different, and becoming far more dangerous.

If Mr Kim's soldiers and scientists really have achieved, or are about to achieve, their goal of becoming a fully nuclear-capable nation, assumptions about containment are out the window.

US President Donald Trump has made it clear that kind of threat will not be allowed to stand.

And now, if miniaturisation of nuclear warheads really has been reached, this is no longer one for the long-term planners.

Even the President's language is changing. His threat to rain "fire and fury" on the North could have been uttered by his opposite in Pyongyang.

Maybe the President has decided to speak a language understood north of the 38th parallel.

Speed of nuclear progress throws relations off balance

But threats are cheap currency on both sides of this conflict. Solutions are urgently needed, but it's hard to see where the compromises could come.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has held out the possibility of talks at the same time his boss is threatening fire and brimstone.

That carrot and stick double act is nothing new, but the whole balance of this equation is being disrupted by the speed of North Korea's nuclear progress.

At its heart, this is all about regime survival and keeping the Kims as kings in perpetuity.

If a mechanism can be found to offer that guarantee, then maybe a deal can be struck.

But what are the chances nuclear ICBMs will be traded away? Buckley's. And that leaves us with two unpredictable leaders with diametrically opposed interests.

And caught in between are the people of both Koreas, Japan, even far-off Australia.

Any military option will likely mean millions die.

Too horrifying to even consider? Yes, but the danger that by accident or design this spirals out of control grows with each missile test, every bellicose threat.

We can only hope a solution will be crafted by the State Department, not the Pentagon.