North Korea believes the U.S. wants to “physically destroy” it and feels its nuclear weapons are vital to its survival, a Russian expert on North Korea recently wrote, and the Trump administration must understand this if there are any hopes of a diplomatic resolution to the current heightened hostilities. 

“It is my impression that policymakers in Pyongyang believe the only purpose of U.S. policy is to liquidate the DPRK as a state or even ‘physically destroy’ the country and its leadership,” Georgy Toloraya, director of Korean Programs at the Institute of Economy at the Russian Academy of Science, wrote in an op-ed for 38 North Wednesday. “The regime does not believe that removal of North Korean nuclear weapons per se is very significant to the U.S., and rather sees this demand as an attempt to undermine the country’s deterrence and gain advantage for a military solution of the Korean issue or regime change by other means.

“Diplomacy could be effective if only the United States would accept the reality that denuclearization of the DPRK is not possible at this moment. Short of regime change, neither the U.S. nor China can force North Korea to surrender its nuclear potential,” Toloraya added, “At the end of the day, a nuclear but peaceful Korean peninsula would be a better outcome than a war-torn Northeast Asia.”

Toloraya’s comments come as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the White House have been at odds over how to approach the North Korea situation. This week, Tillerson suggested the U.S. would be willing to enter diplomatic talks with Pyongyang without the precondition it gives up its nuclear weapons. The White House promptly contradicted him, and on Friday he shifted tone while addressing the United Nations Security Council, stating, “North Korea must earn its way back to the table.” The secretary of state said a “sustained cessation of North Korea’s threatening behavior must occur before talks can begin."

“We have been clear that all options remain on the table in the defense of our nation, but we do not seek, nor do we want, war with North Korea,” Tillerson added. “The United States will use all necessary measures to defend itself against North Korean aggression, but our hope remains that diplomacy will produce a resolution.”

Subsequently, the North Korean ambassador to the U.N. described the security council session as “a desperate measure plotted by the U.S. being terrified by the incredible might” of Kim Jong Un’s regime as it makes strides toward “completing the state nuclear force.” It was a remarkable exchange, in the sense that North Korea rarely makes appearances at U.N. Security Council sessions.

This tit-for-tat comes a few weeks after North Korea’s most powerful long-range missile test yet, which prompted international condemnation. The missile reached an altitude of roughly 2,800 miles––more than 10 times higher than the International Space Station––and traveled for approximately 50 minutes before crashing into the Sea of Japan. 

North Korea and the U.S. have been enemies for decades, but 2017 has been a historic year for their contentious relationship as Kim has escalated long-range missile tests. President Donald Trump has arguably compounded the situation with bellicose rhetoric and constant insults directed at Kim, whom he frequently refers to as “Rocket Man.”

In August, a former CIA analyst went as far as to accuse Trump of sounding like he uses the same speechwriter as the North Korean supreme leader based on the nature of his remarks toward the reclusive nation. The president, for example, threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” like the world has never seen over the summer. And during his first address to the U.N. in September, Trump warned North Korea it would be “totally destroyed” if it forced the U.S. to defend itself or its allies. Kim has responded with his own series of threats and insults, including referring to Trump as a “dotard,” which is an insulting term for an old, senile person. 

Amid this war of words the U.N. has leveled harsh economic sanctions against Pyongyang, which even China—North Korea’s top trading partner and most important ally—has participated in. But all efforts to get North Korea to cease its nuclear program have fallen short. China has urged the U.S. and South Korea to discontinue large-scale military exercises near the Korean Peninsula to make diplomacy a more likely scenario, but the White House has obstinately rejected such a move. 

North Korea is believed to have anywhere between 25 to 60 nuclear weapons, but there’s an ongoing debate as to whether it has acquired the technology to strike a target successfully in the mainland U.S. with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Between the uncertainty of its nuclear capabilities and the war of words between Trump and Kim, the international community is decidedly nervous. 

“The worst possible thing that could happen is for us all to sleepwalk into a war that might have very dramatic circumstances,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said Thursday.

North Korea believes the U.S. wants to “physically destroy” it and feels its nuclear weapons are vital to its survival. The country is thought to have anywhere between 25 to 60 nuclear weapons. Getty Images

Tillerson and other top Trump advisers have suggested they prefer a diplomatic solution to the current hostilities, but the president often seems to imply he prefers a military option. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who plays golf with Trump on a regular basis, recently said there’s a 30 percent chance the president will launch a military strike against North Korea under the current circumstances. If North Korea conducts a seventh nuclear test, as it has threatened to do in recent months, the probability of Trump starting a war with the country rises to 70 percent, Graham contended.

It’s widely agreed among military and academic circles that a war between North Korea and the U.S. would be extraordinarily bloody and potentially lead to millions of deaths. In November, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said a ground invasion would be necessary for the U.S. to eliminate all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, given the limited intelligence on where its military assets are. That same month, the Congressional Research Service released a report that said as many as 300,000 could die in the first few days of fighting in such a conflict, even without the use of nuclear weapons.