North Korea sees being a "nuclear state" as a "poison pill" that will ensure its own survival, making a peaceful conclusion to its conflict with the US difficult to achieve.

Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the US, told news.com.au the status of being a nuclear state was so important to North Korea it was enshrined in its constitution in 2012.

Former leader Kim Jong-il revised the constitution to state that he had "transferred the country into an undefeated country with strong political ideology, a nuclear power state, and invincible military power".

Glosserman said North Korea's nuclear ambitions were a "poison pill" to ensure its survival as other countries like the US would be afraid of retaliation if they attacked the regime.

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"The North Koreans believe they need it, I think mistakenly, as a way of creating greater security that allows them to influence the security environment," Glosserman told news.com.au during a visit to Australia last month.

"It keeps Korea on the security agenda in ways that allow it to continue to extort resources from the world and continue to be a source of attention."

North Korea struggles to produce enough food to feed its people, and over the years South Korea and the US have given it millions in food and fertiliser aid.

China, a long-term ally of North Korea, bought its coal until recently and also helps to keep its economy afloat.

Glosserman said if North Korea didn't get international assistance including food then its people would starve so it needed to be "public enemy number two", inspiring just enough fear to keep other countries at bay but not enough for them to attack.

"Public enemy number one gets the Saddam Hussein treatment but public enemy number two, you just want to make it go away," he said.

Another reason why North Korea wanted the weapons was to maintain an area of superiority with South Korea.

"Nuclear weapons capability is the only thing that distinguishes North Korea from South Korea, and the inter-Korean competition is profound. This is the only one in which North Korea is on top, so they've got to keep those weapons," Glosserman said.

"In that environment, the North won't give up its weapons."

"Moment of opportunity"

Tensions have reached boiling point in the region after a series of nuclear and missile tests in North Korea prompted the US to send an armada of warships to Korean waters including aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson.

Experts believe that North Korea could develop a long-range missile capable of reaching the US, with a nuclear bomb at the tip, within four years.

"That is a hell scary moment," Professor John Blaxland told news.com.au.

Prof Blaxland is the acting head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, and said the nuclearisation of a ballistic missile could threaten the US, halfway across the world, as well as Australia.

In fact, it's been estimated that North Korea could develop a missile powerful enough to reach Australia within two years.

"So do we wait?" Prof Blaxland said. "Or do we act to bring it on? To get in before (North Korea) reaches that state? That is the ongoing debate."

Another factor that has added pressure to the situation is the political turmoil in South Korea.

The US made a deal with South Korea to place a powerful anti-missile system in the country that could intercept and destroy missiles fired from North Korea.

But this deal was placed under a cloud earlier this year when then-president Park Geun-hye was impeached for corruption and then removed from office.

The man seen as a frontrunner to replace her, Moon Jae-in, does not seem supportive of continuing with the deal, and said he wanted to review the decision.

While the presidential race has since narrowed, if Moon was elected on May 9, it could weaken the US bargaining position.

Moon has said he wants to met with North Korea's Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang as a priority over going to Washington, indicating he favours working with the dictator.

This may calm tensions in the area but could allow North Korea to continue developing its nuclear weapons.

With South Korea currently under interim leadership favourable to the US, Prof Blaxland said there was a "certain moment of opportunity" for the US to act.

Last month the US started installing its advanced missile defence system called THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) in South Korea, despite some saying it should wait until the presidential elections were held.

US President Donald Trump has also ordered a naval strike group, led by the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, to the region, though the vessels remain a long way from the peninsula.

US national security adviser HR McMaster repeatedly stated that China - North Korea's key ally - is increasingly concerned about the reclusive communist state's behaviour.

The new consensus is "that this problem is coming to a head. And so it's time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully," McMaster said.

He indicated Washington was working with China to try and find a way out of the crisis.

"The president has made clear that he will not accept the United States and its allies and partners in the region being under threat from this hostile regime with nuclear weapons.

"And so we are working together with our allies and partners, and with the Chinese leadership, to develop a range of options."

Amid speculation that Pyongyang may attempt another nuclear test in the coming days, US President Donald Trump also signalled that China could receive a better trade situation with the US if it was constructive in dealing with the North Korean regime.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during a military parade on Saturday. Photo/AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during a military parade on Saturday. Photo/AP

Can China help?

Many countries have been looking to China to try and solve the impasse, saying it should exert its influence over North Korea to get it to fall in line.

But Brad Glosserman said the belief the Chinese could force an outcome in Pyongyang was a mistake.

He pointed to the US relationship with Israel as an example, saying despite all that America does to help the Jewish state, it is unable to force Israel to do what it wants.

"The problem with North Korea's relationship with the world, is the North's relationship with the US," he said.

"What China believes is that if there is to be a resolution, it must be a resolution between Washington and Pyongyang.

"Beijing's only real role is to facilitate that task, the idea that they can put the screws on ... and deliver North Korea is something that the Chinese don't believe and I don't believe."

Should North Korea be allowed to have nuclear weapons?

If the US did become open to the idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea, Glosserman said this would place stress on the US relationship with South Korea and also with Japan.

"It undermines the integrity of the non-proliferation treaty," he said.

"I believe North Korea went nuclear because Pakistan went nuclear and got away with it. And I'm willing to bet that if North Korea goes nuclear, Iran will go nuclear and if Iran goes nuclear who knows what other dominoes will fall?.

"If North Korea is allowed to become a nuclear weapons state, I would suggest South Koreans might be encouraged to do the same and the Japanese will actively be pushed to do the same.

"There are a number of nuclear dominoes that have the potential to fall."

Missiles are paraded across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade on Saturday. Photo/AP
Missiles are paraded across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade on Saturday. Photo/AP

How can we stop them?

According to the New York Times, the US has been trying to sabotage North Korea's development of missile program using cyber and electronic strikes.

This may even have been why a ballistic missile launched on Saturday was unsuccessful.

Lately, President Donald Trump is reportedly considering "utterly destroying" Kim Jong-un's nuclear sites using pre-emptive strikes.

But Glosserman said he didn't think the US knew where North Korea's warheads or missiles were located.

"The idea that we can intimidate the North Koreans strikes me as being a bit of a stretch," he has previously said.

But while it may be hard for the US to take out North Korea's weapons stockpile if it doesn't know where to target, the use of a military option was still a possibility.

"If there is a missile on a pad and (the US) is reasonably sure that the North Koreans are going to aim that at a US asset or an ally etc ... the perceived need to take that off the pad will be very, very high," Glosserman said.

"I think the North Korean capability is 'one and done'. They get one shot at one adversary and that's the end of their regime.

"It would demonstrate a recklessness and a disregard for human life ... no regime should be allowed to do that and survive, that's an act of war.

"The problem of course is, what will the consequences of that action be?

Glosserman said the countries involved needed to be very careful as diplomacy was everyone's preferred outcome.

Unfortunately Glosserman said he didn't think a deal could ultimately be brokered.

He said the US was demanding that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons but this is something they were not willing to do.

The Chinese have asked for a freeze in activity but this doesn't get rid of what the weapons they have already got.

"At the end of the day, the North Koreans believe that their nuclear weapons are too foundational to their survival and to the survival of their regime.," he said.

"No one has come up with good terms by which we can at least begin a process to cap then roll back North Korea's nuclear weapons."