Updated Jan 25, 2018 - World

The state of the standoff with North Korea

Missile with a question mark contrail

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

While North Korea's call for unification with the South could be interpreted as a step toward reducing tensions, Pyongyang hit several troubling nuclear milestones with unexpected speed in the past year. Tensions between Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump also ramped up over tweets and statements in an almost dizzying back and forth.

Bottom line: The potential for miscalculation is high. But where exactly does North Korea's nuclear program stand amidst these risks, and where does it fall short? And what about the U.S. capability to defend itself?

The Trump factor

Assessing the threat

  • Is the U.S. ready for a North Korean nuclear attack? The short answer is, probably not. We're "falling behind in defensive" ability — Adm. James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, told Axios. More on U.S. preparations here.
  • The missile math — North Korea's maximum launch capacity vs. the number of U.S. interceptors — works right now, in theory. But it might not soon.
  • North Korea isn't ready to field a reliable ICBM to hit the U.S. — yet. And that's the key word. Go deeper on where the North's capabilities stand, and the milestones it has hit so far.

What North Korea wants

Where other world players fit in

  • China has skin in the game. What's at stake.
  • Russia and China have been accused of violating sanctions against North Korea. The reports.

Bottom line

North Korea has said it intends to have an ICBM capable of hitting the U.S. mainland before it ever engages in diplomacy again. Until the regime has that capability nailed down, expect continued testing.

But it eventually will want to return to the negotiating table to get a reduction in sanctions and continued reduction of joint military drills in the region.

Go deeper