North Korea: What we know and don't know about their nuclear program

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The deputy United Nations ambassador from North Korea, Kim In Ryong, claims that the United States' actions toward the country have resulted in "a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment."

It's a huge accusation. But given North Korea's intense reliance on propaganda to mold its people and prevent other nations from accurately assessing its capabilities, nothing said by the state can be taken at face value.

The actual story is complicated and amorphous, as the so-called "hermit kingdom" plays a dangerous game of smoke and mirrors with the entire world watching.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrives at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrives at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone. Lee Jin-man/AP

North Korea's actual nuclear capabilities

To launch nuclear weapons, a country must actually have them. While North Korea has nuclear bombs in the technical sense, they are of little use without a method of delivering them to their target, because current the bombs are too large to travel intercontinentally.

As of 2016, the United States does not actually believe North Korea has been able to successfully make a nuclear bomb small enough to travel to the U.S.

According to Professor Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University, recognized as leading expert on North Korea per BBC, the country's ability to effectively miniaturize nuclear bombs at five years from his writing on the issue in 2016.

Vice President Mike Pence, left, is briefed by U.S. Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of the United Nations Command, U.S. Forces Korea and Combined Forces Command from Observation Post Ouellette.
Vice President Mike Pence, left, is briefed by U.S. Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of the United Nations Command, U.S. Forces Korea and Combined Forces Command from Observation Post Ouellette. Lee Jin-man/AP

U.S. takes tough tone as Japan and South Korea are at risk

While North Korea lacks the capability to seriously damage the U.S., the country presents an immediate threat to its neighbors. 

There are concerns that North Korea has the capability to and could attempt to fire nuclear missiles from a submarine at Japan and South Korea. This presents an immediate concern for the U.S., both on humanitarian and geopolitical grounds. 

Vice President Mike Pence visited South Korea and the Korean Demilitarized Zone on Monday. He signaled a shift from the Obama administration's policy, saying, "We're going to abandon the failed policy of strategic patience. But we're going to redouble our efforts to bring diplomatic and economic pressure to bear on North Korea. Our hope is that we can resolve this issue peaceably."

Trump's refusal to label China a currency manipulator, a hallmark of his campaign, demonstrates concern from the U.S. that resolving the problem of North Korea diplomatically will require strong action by China.

The only certainty is that the U.S., China, Japan and South Korea are all invested in preventing nuclear war.