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Is Trump Right About China and North Korea's Nuclear Program?

Pyongyang has carried out a total five nuclear tests, three of which have been conducted since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011.
Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides a combat drill in an undated photo released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Dec. 11, 2016.KCNA / via Reuters

As usual, Donald Trump’s tweets were pithy and to the point.

“North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won’t happen,” Trump said via his favored social media platform Monday.

He followed up by taking a swing at Beijing, stating: “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won't help with North Korea. Nice!”

The president-elect appeared to be responding to Kim Jong Un's New Year's Day comments, which suggested North Korea could be about to test a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Trump’s words once again called out China, a country he criticized on the campaign trail and since being elected in November. Beijing is also North Korea's most important ally.

But is Trump right to point the finger at China for not reining in its isolated neighbor?

Although Kim didn’t exactly say his country was in the “final stages of developing a weapon” capable of attacking the U.S. as Trump tweeted, North Korean officials have previously stated the country could seek to target the U.S. mainland if U.S. nuclear forces mobilized against it.

However, expert opinion on how close Pyongyang is to perfecting the technology needed to achieve such an endeavor and whether Kim would actually do so if he could is far from unanimous.

How Far Along Is Kim's Nuclear Program?

Pyongyang has carried out a total five nuclear tests, three of which have been conducted since Kim Jong Un came to power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011. Two have been conducted in the last year.

Developing missiles that could deliver a nuclear weapon appears to be another major goal. Although North Korea has claimed it has the ability to mount a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile, outside observers have been unable to verify these claims. It has also never successfully launched an ICBM.

Two U.S. officials told NBC News on Tuesday that intelligence agencies do not see any evidence that Kim is preparing to test a long-range ICBM. They added that the U.S. typically sees activity ahead of a test, which could be an indication that Kim is bluffing this time.

But Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the U.S.-based Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, told Reuters Tuesday that “Pyongyang is much further along in their missile development than most people realize."

State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that U.S. officials do not believe that North Korea has the capability to tip a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead.

Related: What Will Trump Do About Kim Jong Un?

Pyongyang reportedly succeeded in getting its medium-range Musudan missile, with a range of around 1,860 miles, off the ground only once in eight attempts last year.

However, Reuters reported the South Korean defense ministry believes the three-stage Kwangmyongsong rocket used by Pyongyang to put a satellite into space last February, already has a potential range of 7,457 miles, if it were successfully re-engineered as an ICBM.

A rocket with that reach could easily strike U.S. military bases in Japan, American territories in the Pacific such as Guam and parts of the West Coast of U.S.

Dr. Virginie Grzelczyk, an expert on North Korea and international relations at Britain's Aston University, told NBC News that Pyongyang is "not there yet in terms of technology.”

She added: “It is clear they are working on this [and] they will be reaching the testing stage at some point."

Grzelczyk cited progress made on items like shields and new technologies to help a rocket re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Yet whether those tests will be successful or not remains far from certain, she said.

What Did China Think About Trump’s Comments?

China was quick to hit back at Trump over his tweets alleging that it was to refusing to help put the squeeze on North Korea over its nuclear ambitions.

While Beijing has publicly reprimanded Pyongyang after nuclear tests and backed U.N. sanctions, critics say it hasn't done enough to tighten economic pressure.

For its part, China argues it can’t deal with the North Korean nuclear issue alone and that a solution lies with the Pyongyang and Washington engaging directly.

Related: Trump Takes Swing at China Over North Korea Nukes

According to Grzelczyk, China likes having North Korea as a buffer and does not want it to collapse given the potential chaos that could unleash along one of its borders.

John Nilsson-Wright of the Asia Program at London's Chatham House think tank agrees.

He added that Beijing is playing a delicate game in trying to prevent the North Korean provocations while also proving they are willing participants in the sanctions program.

“They don’t want to do anything that will fundamentally destabilize the North Korean regime. If you like, they are pulling their punches in the implementation of sanctions,” Nilsson-Wright said.

In that regard, he added, Trump is right to highlight these issues. Whether it was productive to do so on Twitter is another matter altogether.

The fact that Trump suggested in December that another nuclear arms race was possible will also do little to convince Pyongyang to temper its nuclear ambitions, according to Nilsson-Wright.

North Korea already feels threatened by the increasingly large military exercises held by the U.S. with ally South Korea in recent years that have included rehearsals for regime change in Pyongyang.

Are Kim and Trump Posturing?

Trump aide Kellyanne Conway told MSNBC Tuesday that while Trump was putting North Korea "on notice" through his tweet, he was "not making policy at the moment."

Conway, who will serve as a White House counselor, said that as president, Trump "will stand between [North Korea] and missile capabilities."

But have North Korea also been putting the U.S. and its allies in the region on notice?

Motions towards a new missile tests and nuclear capabilities have become common as a new U.S. president takes office.

In 2009, Kim Jong Il was in charge when a newly inaugurated Barack Obama was forced to react to a long-range rocket launch and nuclear test. Shortly into Obama’s second term in 2013, Pyongyang conducted another nuclear test.

According to Grzelczyk, North Korea’s ultimate aim is likely to build a credible nuclear deterrent to show its strength, both at home and abroad, with the aim of protecting the existing regime rather than striking out first at its enemies.

This is something Obama's Director of National Intelligence James Clapper alluded to late last year when he said the goal of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear program is "probably a lost cause."

"They are not going to do that — that is their ticket to survival. They are under siege and they are very paranoid," he said.

According to Clapper, "the best that we could probably hope for is some sort of a cap [on nuclear weapons]."

Nilsson-Wright agrees. “At best, we could hope for some sort of negotiated freeze which could slow down the North’s policy of developing its weapons capabilities,” he said.

But that would still leave Kim's regime with access to the nuclear warheads it has already developed.

Hans Nichols, The Associated Press, Reuters and Abigail Williams contributed.