North Korea flexes its muscles

North Korea flexes its muscles

North Korea continues to demonstrate that it's won't be scared off its plan to develop nuclear weapons.

The Hermit King this week sent another ominous message to the United States, and like its previous ones, it represented an escalating military threat to its Asian neighbors as well as the U.S.

This time, North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile that flew longer and farther than previous launches — 53 minutes and almost 600 miles from near the country's capital of Pyongyang to the Sea of Japan.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis did not mince words about the potential consequences of North Korea's effort to build a nuclear arsenal.

He said it "endangers world peace, regional peace and, certainly, the United States."

Truer words were never spoken.

While U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that "diplomatic options remain viable and open," he added a caveat — "for now." The U.S. has been leading efforts to impose more and harsher economic sanctions on North Korea and the countries that do business with dictator Kim Jong Un.

The sanctions are having a painful impact on that country, but to what end? There are substantial questions whether North Korean leaders care about the suffering of their people.

The United Nations Security Council has imposed nine rounds of sanctions on that impoverished country since 2006 with little discernible impact on its top policymakers. So what, really, can more sanctions be expected to achieve in light of past non-results?

While the sanctions effort has been building, North Korea's neighbors have taken more dramatic action that demonstrates just how dangerous the situation is.

In the aftermath of the North Korean launch, South Korea gave its own demonstration of its military prowess — firing missiles from a ship, a missile battery and a fighter jet. The message South Korea was sending is that it has multiple options to launch attacks the North cannot stop. Japan, too, has expressed increasing alarm over North Korea's action and stepped up its military readiness.

Messaging is fine, of course, as long as no one pulls the trigger for real. But circumstances can take on a life of their own in such uncertain and emotional circumstances, particularly when a country like North Korea is involved.

It's a secretive, paranoid and ruthlessly dangerous regime that doesn't care about its own citizens, let alone those of other countries.

Further, North Korea shown a maniacal determination to acquire nuclear weapons as a means of making certain that no country will attack it.

Of course, no one is interested in attacking North Korea, but that hardly seems to matter.

The last Korean War began in 1950 when North Korean invaded South Korea. A military stalemate followed by a 1953 cease fire ensued. Since then, there has been an uneasy peace between the North and the South.

Given North Korea's isolation, more is not known than known about its intentions and capabilities. But it has demonstrated continued progress in its missile capability over a relatively short period of time.

So how much longer will it be before North Korea is able to produce a missile armed with a thermonuclear warhead that can reach the U.S. mainland?

As national security officials have said repeatedly, that would be an intolerable situation. But others have asked an important question, "Compared to what?"

All out war on the Korean peninsula, a conflagration that could draw China, Japan and the U.S. into the confrontation.

This is a high-stakes poker game with a lot more than money on the line. All that can be said for now is that North Korea has just upped the ante.

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