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North Korea’s growing nuclear threat, in one statistic

The US has spent decades trying to slow North Korea’s nuclear program. It hasn’t worked.

(KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

Here is the most frightening thing you’ll read all day: Growing numbers of US intelligence officials believe North Korea can produce a new nuclear bomb every six or seven weeks.

That’s one of the most jarring takeaways in an exhaustive New York Times story about North Korea’s rapidly expanding nuclear program — and the decades of US efforts that have tried, and failed, to slow it. The Trump administration plans to detail its own approach Wednesday when it brings the entire US Senate to the White House for a highly unusual briefing on the North Korean threat.

The threat is real. Here are a few more details, courtesy of the Times’s David Sanger and William Broad. North Korea is on pace to have 50 nuclear weapons by 2020. It already knows how to miniaturize those weapons so they can fit into missiles capable of hitting Japan, South Korea, and the tens of thousands of US troops stationed in those two countries. And a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting the US — while not yet in Pyongyang’s arsenal — is now seen as a genuine possibility.

The reclusive country’s steady efforts to develop that type of missile, the Times reports, “have resulted in North Korean warheads that in a few years could reach Seattle.”

That’s not all. As Alex Ward wrote for Vox, South Korea’s capital of Seoul is well within range of the thousands of conventional weapons in North Korea’s enormous arsenal. Pyongyang could devastate the city of 25 million people without needing to use a nuclear weapon:

Simulations of a large-scale artillery fight between the North and South produce pretty bleak results. One war game convened by the Atlantic back in 2005 predicted that a North Korean attack would kill 100,000 people in Seoul in the first few days alone. Others put the estimate even higher. A war game mentioned by the National Interest predicted Seoul could be hit by over half-a-million shells in under an hour.” Those results don’t bode well for one of Washington’s closest allies, or for the tens of millions of people living in Seoul.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

All of that means President Trump faces the same hard question that bedeviled George W. Bush and Barack Obama before him: whether to risk war to prevent one of the world’s most unstable governments from building more of the world’s most dangerous weapons — including some capable of one day hitting the US.

The North Korean threat is real. That doesn’t mean war is inevitable.

This is, without doubt, a genuinely scary moment, with Washington and Pyongyang both making increasingly explicit threats against each other.

The Trump administration has specifically talked about a preemptive strike against North Korea and has a large US Navy carrier strike group steaming toward the region (yes, the same one that Trump had falsely said was heading there last week). And a US submarine docked in South Korea Tuesday as part of an explicit show of force.

North Korea has responded with threats to sink a US aircraft carrier and destroy American military bases in Japan (it’s far from clear the country could pull off either one). On Tuesday, it test-fired huge numbers of its artillery pieces (which are basically large guns capable of hitting distant targets), including many of the ones capable of striking South Korea. Many observers expect North Korea to conduct a nuclear test — its sixth in the past 11 years — as soon as the end of this week.

Still, none of this means that war is inevitable — or likely.

Trump, for all of his harsh rhetoric, has for the moment been largely sticking with the Obama administration’s North Korea policy. As my colleague Jennifer Williams noted, Trump has so far taken only the relatively modest steps of beginning the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system to South Korea while pressuring China — North Korea’s most important ally — to do more to rein in Pyongyang.

North Korea, meanwhile, issues almost comically apocalyptic threats fairly regularly and has for the moment limited its actions to missile tests (the most recent one failed) and high-profile military parades through the heart of Pyongyang. A new nuclear test would send alarm bells ringing, but it wouldn’t be North Korea’s first, and it wouldn’t necessarily indicate a change in the country’s actual policy.

That entire calculus could change quickly depending on events on the ground — and on the decisions of the two countries’ mercurial leaders, Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Either way, one thing is alarmingly clear: As the Obama administration handed the White House keys over to the Trump team, the president told his successor that North Korea would be America’s top national security threat. And, as predicted, it is.

Watch: The North Korean nuclear threat, explained

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