WASHINGTON • American military and intelligence officials tracking North Korea's actions by the hour are bracing themselves for an imminent test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching US shores.
New commercial satellite images indicate that a structure has been added to a North Korean factory linked to the production of ICBMs.
The US officials appear resigned to the fact that President Donald Trump has no good options to stop such a launch.
If the North goes ahead with the test soon - Pyongyang had earlier promised a "Christmas gift" if no progress was made on the lifting of sanctions - it would be a glaring setback for Mr Trump's boldest foreign policy initiative.
North Korea yesterday said that leader Kim Jong Un had convened a key ruling party meeting to decide on steps to bolster the country's military capability.
The Korean Central News Agency said Mr Kim presided over a meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea. It did not say when it took place.
It cited Mr Kim as saying the meeting would determine "important organisational and political measures and military steps to bolster the overall armed forces... as required by the fast-changing situation and crucial time of the developing Korean revolution".
However, the South Korean media has speculated that the meeting might have discussed the restructuring of military units over the deployment of new weapons that the North had test-launched in recent months, and what steps it will take in the coming weeks.
Mr Kim could choose to launch a satellite rather than an ICBM, betting that the move might push Mr Trump to loosen sanctions without inciting a violent reaction.
Mr Kim could also coax China and Russia into further easing sanctions at the United Nations. Both nations are eager to reassert a leadership role on the North Korea issue.
ICBM tests by North Korea two years ago prompted Mr Trump to suggest that "fire and fury", and perhaps a war, could result.
Mr Trump often cites the suspension of long-range missile and underground nuclear tests over the past two years as evidence that his leader-to-leader diplomacy with the North was working - and that such negotiating skills would persuade Mr Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal.
Mr Kim's recent threats come as he is preparing for two important political events: a year-end plenary session of the Workers' Party of Korea and a New Year's speech.
The North Korean leader had declared at the start of this year that Pyongyang would not give up a single weapon until Washington lifts its sanctions. He then gave Mr Trump a year-end deadline.
Now Mr Kim has found himself empty-handed, unable to stride into the party plenum in triumph or deliver a pronouncement of victory on Jan 1.
Backed into a corner, he is trying once again to use his main leverage - the threat of weapons tests or military action - to coerce Mr Trump into sanctions relief, analysts said.
Should Mr Kim resume tests, US officials said, it will be a sign that he truly feels jammed and has concluded Washington will not lift crushing sanctions on his impoverished nation any time soon.
Left unaddressed, however, is the challenge that a new missile test would represent and what it would mean for the sanctions strategy.
Military officials said there are no plans to try to destroy a missile on the launchpad or intercept it in the atmosphere - steps that both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama considered and rejected.
It is unclear if the US military's cyber command is still trying to sabotage the launches from afar, as it did under the Obama administration, with mixed results.
Instead, officials said, if the North resumes its missile tests, the Trump administration will turn to allies and again lobby the UN Security Council for tightened sanctions - a strategy that has been tried for two decades.
Beneath the recent threats is the onset of a cold reality: In the 18 months since Mr Trump and Mr Kim first met in Singapore, with declarations of warmth not seen since the suspension of the Korean War in 1953, the North has bolstered its arsenal of missiles and its stockpile of bomb-ready nuclear material.
A second meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, this February has also not led to any progress in the North's denuclearisation.
In recent weeks, the North has also conducted ground tests of what appear to be new missile engines that Pyongyang said would bolster its "nuclear deterrent", suggesting that it has little intention of giving up its ability.
Also, commercial satellite images from Planet Labs show that a temporary structure has been added to a factory linked to the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles, NBC News reported. The structure at the site can accommodate the raising of a launcher arm for such long-range missiles.
The expected North Korean escalation will leave Mr Trump with an unpalatable choice.
He could reprise his alarming threats of military action from late 2017, infusing the 2020 presidential election year with a sense of crisis, which could cost him votes - and risk real conflict.
Or he could endure the new provocation and double down, betting that greater sanctions could somehow force the North to abandon its decades-long course towards a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the continental US.
Thus far, Mr Trump is showing little appetite for a return to the tensions of two years ago.
"I have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un," Mr Trump told reporters at the White House earlier this month, before adding, in what could prove to be wishful thinking: "I think we both want to keep it that way."
BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES, ASSOCIATED PRESS