North Korean defector says Kim is 'desperate,' will launch nukes at US

A high-ranking North Korean diplomat who defected last year told Lester Holt of NBC News 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.

Thae Yong-ho said North Korea is developing a long-range missile that can hit the U.S. and that he would strike if there were an "imminent threat" of attack from the U.S.

NBC News:

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," he added in an exclusive interview on Sunday.

Thae was living in London and serving as North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom when he and his family defected to South Korea and were announced to the world in August.

He was not directly involved in North Korea's weapons program but believes his country "has reached a very significant level of nuclear development."

North Korea is estimated to have upward of eight nuclear weapons but has not demonstrated the ability to attach them to a long-range rocket, an ICBM, capable of hitting the U.S.

Analysts are unsure exactly how close the regime is to achieving this aim, but a senior official told NBC News in January that his government was ready to test-fire an ICMB "at any time, at any place."

Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told NBC News that American officials were particularly troubled by this latest threat.

"They have the nuclear capability – they've demonstrated that," he said. "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 interview with NBC News comes against a backdrop of rising tensions surrounding North Korea, which has significantly increased its missile and nuclear tests under Kim's rule.

There are many unknowns about North Korea that make any threat of this kind particularly dangerous.  For instance, it is thought that Kim's hold on power is tenuous at best.  Evidence for this comes from the frequent arrests and executions of high-ranking officials and even members of his own family.  Just last month, it is widely believed, Kim ordered the assassination of his half-brother in Malaysia.

The uncertain hold he has on power feeds a paranoia driving the North Korean missile program.  While the reliability of their missiles is in question, the range of their weapons continues to increase.  Their most recent test was of a modified sub-launched missile with a range that could hit most of Japan.

U.S. officials are watchful, but wary:

President Donald Trump told the Financial Times newspaper on Monday that "something had to be done" about North Korea. This 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 – I'll give you three reasons," according to Adm. James Stavridis, an NBC News analyst and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. "One is [Kim's] own precarious situation in command of the nation. Number two is the instability in South Korea. We've just seen the South Korean president indicted, arrested, and incarcerated."

"And, number three, a new and more aggressive American foreign policy coming from Washington," he added.

It appears that the U.S. and its allies – and China – are tiring of Kim's boasts and threats.  But what to do about it is another issue altogether.  President Trump will meet with Chinese president Xi this week, and you can bet that what to do about North Korea will be at the top of their agenda.  It is believed that only China – whose trade and security assistance North Korea cannot live without – holds the key to reining in Kim.  Whether the Chinese will see it in their strategic interest to put pressure on North Korea to behave will depend at least in part on the rapport the president can build with Xi.

Time is no longer on our side.  While the North is not close to developing a missile that can hit the U.S., it may be on the cusp of being able to construct a warhead for the missiles they already have.  That spells trouble for Japan and South Korea, who are currently on the front lines of any potential conflict.

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