With both sides now contemplating war, there's another option that's only slightly less desireable than all out combat — perpetual brinksmanship.
Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang have grown so deep that North Korean media said on Thursday that war has now become inevitable, and the only question that remains is when.
The US is currently in the midst of an unprecedented display of air power with South Korea, that includes the highest-ever number of stealth jets and an increased pace of simulated bomb runs.
But with both sides now contemplating war, there's another option that's only slightly less desirable than all out combat — perpetual brinkmanship.
With North Korea claiming to have completed its nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile and the US training on how to crush Kim Jong Un's regime with overwhelming air power and its most lethal jets, it may seem that tensions could rise no higher, but they always can.
North Korea says it's finished its ICBM, but one successful test is hardly a strong track record and they will likely have to continue testing, according to Yun Sun, a North Korea and China expert at the Stimson Center.
Even though the US has its top-of-the-line jets deployed to South Korea for the moment, it can still ratchet up pressure more. Sun pointed out that the US could engage in covert, unattributable military actions against North Korea's nuclear infrastructure or step up cyber attacks.
Both sides are scared to shoot first
In this Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017, file photo, a man watches a television screen showing U.S.
President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea has announced a detailed plan to launch a salvo of ballistic missiles toward the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, a major military hub and home to U.S. bombers.
If carried out, it would be the North's most provocative missile launch to date.play
In this Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017, file photo, a man watches a television screen showing U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea.
North Korea has announced a detailed plan to launch a salvo of ballistic missiles toward the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, a major military hub and home to U.S. bombers. If carried out, it would be the North's most provocative missile launch to date. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)
"Deterrence is the main issue here," Sun told Business Insider.
Now, more than ever, both sides are deterred from conflict. With a credible ICBM, North Korea can more comfortably keep the US from striking, as it could retaliate with its own nuclear return fire.
As the world unites against the rogue nuclear regime in Pyongyang, Washington's mandate to protect its citizens and crush any aggression from North Korea against its allies has also crested.
Essentially, despite the deep differences and bitter tensions, the US and North Korea have deterred each other, much like the US and the Soviet Union had during the Cold War.
Over decades the US and the Soviet Union butted heads continually over matters of national security and foreign policy, but no war ever broke out because of nuclear deterrence.
Today, the US is entering a similar relationship of mutual deterrence with North Korea, but it may actually be less dangerous.
Unlike the Soviet Union, North Korea can influence little outside its borders. Kim Jong Un's influence is mainly limited to his small, impoverished country, whereas the Kremlin during the Cold War proved adept at bolstering enemies of the US wherever they were.
No end in sight to the North Korean crisis
In short, whether by diplomacy or by combat, there is no end in sight to the North Korean crisis. The US and North Korea have fundamentally different views of what a peace process would entail, and war would mean Pyongyang's absolute destruction.
"This cycle of tensions is going to continue for a while," said Sun.
Until then, the US will see through its "maximum pressure" policy and wait out North Korea, which has struggled to maintain control as sanctions wither the economy.