Soldiers hold a rally June 15 in Pyongyang to denounce the United Nations Security Council's resolution on sanctions in response to North Korea's recent nuclear and missile tests. (Getty Images)
Is North Korea's recent threat against the United States just more of the country's saber-rattling? Or should we be very, very afraid?
As the world watches for a test launch by North Korea of a long-range missile toward Hawaii -- expected some time around United States' Independence Day -- experts are still locked in debate about whether the country poses a real danger.
When it comes to North Korea, sizing up the threat is not easy, experts say.
For one, the communist country is known for missile test-fires that fail more often than succeed. And Kim Jong Il, the nation's eccentric leader, is famous for using bluster and threats of aggression as a negotiating ace card.
But as the upstart regime already has nuclear capabilities, and some observers contend North Korea is in fact the greatest threat to regional peace.
"It is a paradoxical picture," said Sara Kreps, assistant professor of government at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "We're talking about a country that already has nuclear weapons" and hundreds of missiles, she said. That equation makes the state "considerably more serious than the current situation in Iran."
But "it's come to a point with Kim Jong Il that the credibility of the threats is suspect," she added.
U.S. braces for launch
The United States, however, is not calling North Korea's bluff. Although U.S. officials don't expect the July 4 test launch to reach U.S. territory, the Defense Department has reinforced its missile-defense system around Hawaii.
"There's a pretty serious threat that something has a chance, or more of a chance, of coming at us," said Riki Ellison, chair and founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance in Alexandria, Va. "If we (didn't) believe that, we wouldn't be deploying all these defenses."
The missile being readied, the Taepodong-2, has never flown successfully. But some scientists believe a flawless launch could cover up to 4,160 miles, within reach of the Hawaiian islands and Alaska.
Even if the launch fails, an eventual successful liftoff will clear the way for the next step: figuring out how to tip them with nuclear or chemical warheads.
Over the next several days, the United States also is expecting short- and midrange missile tests, those that could potentially reach Japan or South Korea.
In the same breath, experts often qualify the potential menace of the regime. Kim, 67, has every reason to grandstand, several experts said. Kim's stroke last year has raised questions about his successor, expected to be his 26-year-old son, who by some accounts has not been sufficiently groomed for the job.
Getting the world's attention
Shows of strength can build credibility for Kim's son, said James Morrow, professor of political science at University of Michigan. It "demonstrates that he's still in control and he can produce all the things that his critical supporters want," including "extorting things from neighbors," Morrow said.With a new president in the White House, Kim could be taking the opportunity to test President Barack Obama's mettle, just as historians have speculated that Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, tried to do when he gave newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy a brutal tongue-lashing in their 1961 meeting in Vienna, Morrow said.
"It's about finding out how they're going to respond," Morrow said. "It makes it easier to judge how you're going to act in the future."
But whether it all does amount to bluster, the U.S. should never turn its back on a nuclear North Korea, scholars say.
And the opportunity for the U.S. to adopt a new tack to de-nuclearize the country has arrived. Even China -- North Korea's only official ally -- appears, too, to be growing weary of its neighbor.
It recently joined the United Nations Security Council in approving sanctions against North Korea in response to its recent missile and nuclear tests.
"China has the ability to tighten up the pressure," said Michael O'Hanlon, senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank in Washington.
That's because Beijing accounts for three-quarters of trade with the impoverished country, providing its main supplies of petroleum, he said.
If China ramps up sanctions, cutting off all its trade to North Korea, the impoverished regime could for the first time be forced to choose between nuclear disarmament and watching the country collapse, O'Hanlon said.
The U.S. will have to give assurance to China it will not be alone in dealing with the fallout of a potential North Korean collapse, he said, including the relocation of its refugees.
We have to "tighten the screws," O'Hanlon said.