We know how this ends, even if that ending is so horrifying we dare not even think about it.
North Korea has long threatened to turn Asia into a sea of fire. Once that was rhetoric, now it has the capacity to turn that threat into reality.
North Korea’s nuclear program stretches back decades. In the past 10 years, the Hermit Kingdom has conducted six nuclear tests.
Since taking power in 2011, Kim Jong-un has accelerated the growth of his weapons stockpile and refined his missile delivery system.
What’s in Kim Jong-un’s arsenal?
How many nuclear bombs does North Korea possess? A leaked US Intelligence assessment puts it at 60.
Independent analysts estimate it at about half that. Siegfried Hecker, nuclear scientist and former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory — the once top secret US nuclear weapons development site — has visited North Korea and inspected its uranium enrichment facilities and says he believes it has at least 30 weapons, with the capacity to produce six more each year.
Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs in 2017, Mr Hecker said the record of tests “conclusively demonstrates that North Korea can build nuclear devices with the power of the fission bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki”.
He says Pyongyang has also developed the far more powerful hydrogen bomb.
For years North Korea’s missile program lagged in its nuclear weapon capacity, but as Mr Hecker points out, under Kim Jong-un the country has test-fired more than 40 missiles in the past two years.
What would a nuclear strike look like?
Mr Kim now boasts that he can strike Los Angeles.
Writing in a recent edition of The National Interest magazine, executive editor Harry Kazianis says America is no longer protected by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
“It is no longer the strategic safety blanket it once was, thanks to modern missile technology,” he says.
A few years ago, Kazianis took part in computer-based war games at a think tank in Washington that imagined the potential of nuclear war between the US and North Korea.
He outlines several scenarios, each one more frightening than the last.
Mr Kim could strike South Korea’s 20 civilian nuclear power plants unleashing “a disaster eclipsing nuclear Chernobyl”.
Tens of thousands of people would be killed and vast tracts of land rendered uninhabitable.
In another scenario, Kim Jong-un launches a conventional weapons attack on American and allied forces with hundreds of small and medium range missiles.
The allies strike back, routing the North and destroying what is believed to be Kim’s nuclear stockpile. But there is a hidden arsenal and Kim unleashes it on Seoul and Tokyo, killing at least a million, with millions more wounded.
It gets worse. Kazianis describes yet another attack: this time Mr Kim launches an “atomic Pearl Harbour”. Sensing a regime change attack by the US, Kim strikes multiple cities in South Korea and Japan, killing millions, before he himself is defeated.
The final scenario, Kazianis says, is the most shocking of all: This time Mr Kim strikes not just South Korea and Japan but the US west coast.
Add to this the use of chemical and biological weapons and a United States counter nuclear strike and the body count is more than eight million people.
These are the stakes. American intelligence officials have seen the future, they know the worst.
Kazianis says there is no room now for thinking that North Korea can be stopped: It is a nuclear-armed power.
He argues that containment is the only option — even direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Today the door is ajar, North and South Korean officials are talking. Next month’s winter Olympics has created a diplomatic opportunity. Close observers say it is an opportunity not to be missed.
But we have seen this before.
North Korea has a history of playing bait-and-switch: entering negotiations, extracting concessions then walking away and upping the ante.
If history is a guide, Mr Kim will soon test another missile or perhaps even another nuclear bomb.
He is playing a high-stakes game of regime survival, he is in a stronger position now than ever before, with a finger on a nuclear button, and the Americans know just what hell that would unleash.