HONG KONG — The decades-long war of words between the United States and North Korea appeared one step closer to going nuclear on Tuesday, when President Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” if the rogue state continued its bellicose missile and nuclear tests.
Hours later, Pyongyang warned of a strike that would create “an enveloping fire” around Guam, the Pacific island on which the United States has a critical Air Force base.
Keeping track of all of the weapons tests, sanctions and diplomatic talks can be dizzying, but here is what you need to know:
Does North Korea have nuclear weapons?
Yes. Intelligence reports suggest that the North Koreans have figured out how to miniaturize a weapon, but not how to deliver it intact to the United States.
In 2016, Pyongyang released a photo of its leader, Kim Jong-un, posing with the country’s first miniaturized nuclear warhead. We took a careful look at that image and concluded that the bomb — about two feet in diameter with a destructive yield equivalent to the atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Japan — could be carried by a long-range missile.
The North has steadily been building and testing such missiles, and in July it launched a rocket that experts said was capable of reaching the mainland United States. Officials say they believe the North already possesses medium-range missiles capable of striking much of South Korea and Japan.
Intercontinental missiles fly in an arc into space before returning to Earth to hit their targets. The next hurdle for the North is developing a warhead that can survive the intense heat of re-entry as it plunges back from space.
In addition to test missiles, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests. Each test of its nuclear capabilities has been more powerful than the last, and it appears to be preparing a sixth test.
What is the rest of the world doing?
The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution on Saturday to impose a new round of sanctions on North Korea for defying a ban on testing missiles and nuclear bombs.
The resolution, the eighth set of sanctions in 11 years, was intended to cut the country’s annual export revenue by $1 billion, about a third of its current total.
However, a recent investigation by our reporters found that despite years of sanctions, North Korea still has ways — many of them illegal — to finance its weapons program. We also found that the North Korean economy is doing surprisingly well. Merchants and entrepreneurs, thriving under the protection of the ruling party, are encouraging a building boom in Pyongyang, and there are more cars in the capital than ever before.
On Monday, there appeared to be a rare opening to engage the North indiplomatic discussions. On the sidelines of a conference of Southeast Asian foreign ministers in Manila, North Korea’s top diplomat held an uncommon round of talks with his counterparts from China, South Korea and Russia.
What has President Trump said about North Korea?
Days before his inauguration, Mr. Trump said he would prevent North Korea from developing a weapon capable of reaching the United States, tweeting: “It won’t happen!”
In a television interview in April, he described Mr. Kim as a “smart cookie.”
Pyongyang has long used inflammatory language, previously threatening to destroy Seoul in a “sea of fire” and ordering North Korean missiles “stabbed into the throat” of American warships.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump invoked terms similar to those used by the North Koreans themselves, threatening to unleash “fire and fury” if the country endangered the United States. Our White House correspondent wrote that there was little precedent for a president to use such language.
North Korea warned several hours later that it was considering a strike that would create “an enveloping fire” around Guam.
Who is at risk of attack?
The United States and its allies are unlikely to end the crisis purely by military means because pre-emptive action, no matter how surgical, could invite an aggressive response from Pyongyang.
North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces positioned along its border with the South and pointed at Seoul, a mere 35 miles from the border. The arsenal is of limited range and could be destroyed in days, but the United States defense secretary, Jim Mattis, has said that if North Korea used that supply, it “would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”
We recently took a detailed look at how North Korea might respond if the United States tried a surgical strike and found that any attempt could set off a chain of events risking staggering casualties.
According to one analysis, 30,000 civilians would be killed in the initial bombardment — and that is without using nuclear weapons.