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What Do We Do
About North Korea?

A high-ranking North Korean diplomat who defected in 2016 warned that the "world should be ready" to deal with a "desperate" Kim Jong-un, who may launch nuclear missiles at the U.S. and its allies at the slightest provocation.

In an interview with NBC journalist Lester Holt, Thae Yong-ho said North Korea is developing a long-range missile that can hit the U.S. and that he would strike if he thought there was an "imminent threat" of attack from the U.S.

"Once he sees that there is any kind of sign of a tank or an imminent threat from America, then he would use his nuclear weapons with ICBM," Thae said.

Thae was serving in London as North Korea's deputy ambassador to the U.K. when he and his family defected to South Korea.

Though he wasn't directly involved in North Korea's weapons program he said he believed his country "has reached a very significant level of nuclear development."

Analysts' best guess is that North Korea may have approximately eight nuclear weapons — though they've yet to show any ability to combine them with a long-range rocket that could hit the U.S.

No-one in the west knows how close North Korea is to reaching this goal, but an unnamed senior official said in January that his government was ready to test-fire an ICBM "at any time, at any place."

Many people think Kim's hold on power is uncertain. His regime has been riven with arrests and executions of high-ranking officials, including members of Kim's own family. Just last month, his half-brother was assassinated in Malaysia.

"They have the nuclear capability — they've demonstrated that," said Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. "And then, where they're going with the miniaturization of that, whether they can actually weaponize a missile, that's what's driving the current concern."

Thae's statements come against a period of increased tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, which has upped the frequency of its missile and nuclear tests since Kim Jong Un took power.

To make matters worse, many people think Kim's hold on power is uncertain. His regime has been riven with arrests and executions of high-ranking officials, including members of Kim's own family. Just last month, his half-brother was assassinated in Malaysia.

All of which feeds Kim's paranoia, which has further accelerated the pace of North Korea's missile program. While the reliability of North Korea's missiles is questionable, the range of their weapons has increased steadily. Most recently they tested a modified sub-launched missile with a range that could hit most of Japan.

President Trump told the Financial Times newspaper recently that "something had to be done" about North Korea. His comments came after Defense Secretary James Mattis said the country "has got to be stopped" and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said military action was "on the table."

"It does feel more dangerous," according to Adm. James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, who, in addition to citing Kim's precarious hold on power, pointed out the political situation in South Korea. "We've just seen the South Korean president indicted, arrested, and incarcerated."

It appears that the U.S. and its allies — and China — are running out of patience with Kim's boasts and threats. But how to respond to them is something else entirely. President Trump will soon be meeting with Chinese president Xi, and you can bet that the North Korea question will be at the top of the agenda. It's widely thought that China — whose trade and security assistance North Korea is completely dependent on — is the only force in the world capable of peacefully controlling Kim.