North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has asserted for the first time that Pyongyang can field nuclear-tipped missiles, state media reported Wednesday. A North Korean newspaper printed photographs of him meeting staff at a missile facility with a spherical silver object on a stand that appeared to be a mock-up nuclear warhead.
Kim told the officials that the country’s warheads have been shrunk in size and “standardized” for missile delivery. “This can be called true nuclear deterrent,” he said, in a translation provided by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
The claim comes days after the United Nations Security Council imposed a new embargo on North Korea — on things ranging from jet fuel to jet skis — and in the week 317,000 U.S. and South Korean troops began more than a month of exercises gaming North Korean threats.
It also conflicts with the global view of North Korea’s potential. In four nuclear tests Pyongyang has shown the potential to create crude bombs, but Washington has not endorsed the view that the North can shrink its devices to fit the tips of missiles.
“I don’t think they’re at that stage yet,” U.S. Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh told a news briefing on Tuesday in Washington.
Amid near-daily bombast from Pyongyang, analysts caution that it is hard to take its statements at face value.
“A successful test detonation of a hydrogen bomb would substantiate Kim Jong Un’s miniaturization claim,” said regional affairs expert Benjamin Habib of Australia’s La Trobe University. “The DPRK’s January nuclear test was inconclusive in this regard, so it is likely that Kim’s claim is rhetorical overreach at this stage.”
DPRK is an abbreviation of the country’s preferred name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
An assessment published last month by the North Korea-focused 38 North website said Pyongyang is likely able to deliver a nuclear attack by missile.
“The North Koreans probably stink at making compact warheads and accurate re-entry vehicles,” wrote the study’s author, Jeffrey Lewis. “But that’s not quite the same thing as saying they aren’t trying, that they don’t have some confidence in these abilities or that we shouldn’t keep trying to find ways to discourage them from testing these systems.”
Habib said even if North Korea obtains a small missile arsenal it does not shift the balance of power in Northeast Asia, given the presence of the U.S. umbrella and that Seoul, just 50 km from the border, remains “essentially indefensible” from short-range attack.
Habib believes nations in the region will need to take a fresh look at diplomacy with a nuclear-capable North Korea, dropping their current focus on denuclearization as unrealistic. But, he warns, that shift is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
“For domestic political reasons, normalization with the DPRK is poisonous at present in Washington and Tokyo.”