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Pyongyang fighting words as Korean Peninsula 'hugely near the tipping point'

The U.S. missile attack on the Syrian government airbase is unlikely to deter North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un's missile and nuclear-weapons development and could embolden the despotic regime in Pyongyang, experts say.

With tensions ratcheting up over North Korea, a U.S. Navy carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson was dispatched to waters off the Korean Peninsula, the Navy announced Sunday.

"If you are the North Korean leader, you say wow … I could be next," said Daniel Goure, a former Pentagon official now with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based think tank specializing in defense issues. "For them, I think the answer is straight forward — you can't trust the Americans."

Goure called the situation "hugely near the tipping point." He said if an all-out conflict were to erupt on the peninsula, "it's quite possible it could be a very intense, bloody war."

Martin S. Fuentes | US Navy | Getty Images

The Navy said the Vinson-led carrier strike group will operate in the Western Pacific rather than executing previously planned port visits to Australia. The Vinson can hold more than 80 aircraft at a time, including F/A-18 Super Hornets with precision weapons capable of taking out ground and aerial targets.

If anything, the decades-long nuclear ambitions by North Korea are unlikely to dim and could accelerate as the 33-year-old dictator of the regime grows more paranoid to threats everywhere, contend national security and Asia specialists. The thinking is a man who ordered the killing of own family members and rules with little regard for his enslaved and hungry people is hell-bent on maintaining his regime at all costs.

Moreover, experts see little chance of diplomacy and sanctions bringing a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear weapons issue. The Trump administration also appears to have given up on negotiations, citing decades of no progress in the strategy and recent provocations by the regime.

One message that President Donald Trump might have clearly conveyed to Pyongyang last week was he's willing to take military action, such as the missile strike he ordered against a Syrian government airbase. It was in response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed more than 100 people.

"In North Korea's mind, the Syria attack will just show the necessity of nuclear weapons," said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea and now an Asia specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank.

Indeed, Klingner said the North Koreans have previously pointed to what happened to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, Iraqi's Saddam Hussein and Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic — all leaders who didn't have nuclear weapons.

North Korea criticized the U.S. missile attack on Syria as "unpardonable," according to a Saturday report from its state-run news operation, Korean Central News Agency.

"Some forces are loud-mouthed that the recent U.S. military attack on Syria is an action of 'warning' to the DPRK, but the latter is not frightened at such threat," KCNA said in bellicose comments that went on to tout the secretive nation's "tremendous military muscle with a nuclear force." DPRK is short for North Korea's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

After the 2003 U.S. military invasion of Iraq, North Korea's then-leader Kim Jong Il — the father of the current dictator — went into hiding for just over a month and didn't even show up for important national events.

It's still unclear how the North Korea situation will play out since analysts view Kim Jong Un as a "wild card." Experts say the leader is seen as vulnerable because U.S. intelligence agencies are known to closely monitor his movements by satellite and other means.

Killing the current dictator of North Korea and sending nuclear weapons to South Korea are among several options presented to Trump by the National Security Council, NBC News reported Friday. It cited top intelligence and military officials and said the options were reviewed before Trump's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week.

U.S. battlefield nuclear weapons were removed from South Korea in 1991.

Even without ground-launched nuclear capability, the U.S. still has plenty of firepower in the region and can use nuclear-capable bombers out of Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. The U.S. has been flying long-range bombers on practice runs over the Korean peninsula in the past several months.

The North Koreans have demonstrated several ballistic missile tests this year and are believed to be working on nuclear warheads that can reach U.S. allies such as South Korea, Japan as well as the American territory of Guam. They also are working on an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach North America.

At the same time, North Korea raised the danger threat in February when they demonstrated the ability to use solid-fueled rocket engines, which means they have a technology that is easier to hide, needs less support and can be launched faster too.

The rogue state is believed to have enough plutonium and enriched uranium to construct just over two dozen nuclear weapons, according to American nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, who provided the assessment earlier this year in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. He is emeritus director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The nuclear threat from North Korea led the U.S. to deploy Lockheed Martin's THAAD (or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system to South Korea in early March. China protested the deployment although the U.S. has insisted it's purely for defensive proposes.

"Even if THAAD works reasonably well and even if Patriot in Japan works reasonably well, all they (North Korea) have to do is get one warhead through and then what happens," said John Pike, a military analyst at Globalsecurity.org. "It would not be pretty. There would be a lot of dead people."

Patriot is a missile defense system manufactured by Raytheon and used in several locations around the world, including near Tokyo.

Trump and China's president spent time talking about North Korea last week, with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later indicating Xi pledged more cooperation on the North Korea nuclear issue without any specifics on how to force Pyongyang to abandon its weapons plan.

If North Korea is allowed to keep its nuclear weapons, analysts suggest there's a risk the entire region could see an arms race. As a candidate, Trump said Japan and South Korea might need to develop their own nuclear weapons since North Korea appears to have such a capability.

"The guy who has to be thinking deep thoughts right now is the president of China," said Ed Turzanski, an international policy and national security expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Philadelphia. "The things that keep the Chinese up at night are Japan and Korea ... having an offensive military capability. Because the Chinese have very bad memories of the last time the Japanese had an offensive capability."

Turzanski, who worked in the U.S. intelligence community in postings throughout Asia and Europe during the Reagan administration, said Trump's belief is "let's let people defend themselves if they're allies. If they're allies…we don't have to do all the heavy lifting all the time. Now you can argue whether that's a prudent course of action."

Even so, experts say China is unlikely to drop all economic ties to Pyongyang but could prod its erratic neighbor to return to negotiations about freezing its nuclear and missile programs. China represents an estimated 80 percent of North Korea's trade and a report last week indicated that two-fifths of North Korea's hard currency earnings is derived from Chinese firms.