SEOUL/BEIJING – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said on Sunday that the isolated nuclear-capable country was close to test-launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
North Korea tested ballistic missiles at an unprecedented rate during 2016, although some experts have said it is years away from developing an ICBM fitted with a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the United States.
“Research and development of cutting edge-arms equipment is actively progressing and ICBM rocket test launch preparation is in its last stage,” Kim said during a televised New Year’s Day speech.
The country has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its nuclear and ballistic missile tests. The sanctions were tightened last month after Pyongyang conducted its fifth and largest nuclear test on Sept. 9.
A successful ICBM test launch would mark a significant step forward for secretive Pyongyang’s weapons capability. ICBMs have a minimum range of about 5,500 km (3,418 miles), but some are designed to travel 10,000 km or farther. California is roughly 9,000 km from North Korea.
However, North Korea has struggled to reliably deploy its intermediate-range Musudan ballistic missile, succeeding just once in eight attempted launches last year.
The Musudan is designed to fly about 3,000 km (1,860 miles), posing a threat to South Korea and Japan, and possibly the U.S. territory of Guam.
South Korea’s defense ministry declined comment on whether North Korea would test launch an ICBM soon.
According to a senior U.S. intelligence official, President-elect Donald Trump’s first and at that time only request for a special classified intelligence briefing was for one on North Korea and its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea and its nuclear program have also been of interest to retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security advisor and a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
An Chan-il, a former North Korean military officer who defected to the South and runs a think tank in Seoul, said Kim will gauge Trump’s comments about his country for potential interest in dialogue and determine whether to try and conduct an ICBM test launch.
“If Trump comes in and the North does not get a good signal in terms of how the relationship between the two countries is going to go, that’ll give them another reason to do it,” An said.
Kim also said that the North would continue to develop its pre-emptive nuclear strike capability if the United States and South Korea continue to conduct annual joint military exercises.
There are 28,500 U.S. service members based in South Korea, and North Korean state media often describe annual joint exercises as preparation for an attack.
In February, North Korea launched a satellite into space, which was widely seen as a test of long-range ballistic missile technology.
A senior U.S. military official said last month that North Korea appears able to mount a miniaturized nuclear warhead on a missile but is still struggling with missile re-entry technology necessary for longer range strikes.
Although it fired a variety of missile types last year, North Korea is not known to have test-launched a ballistic missile since October.
Kim meanwhile urged Washington to scrap its “anachronistic hostile policy” toward Pyongyang, just weeks ahead of Trump’s inauguration.
In his nationally televised New Year’s address, Kim said North Korea has “soared as a nuclear and military power in the East that no formidable enemy dare encroach upon,” thanks to the success of its two nuclear tests in 2016.
As long as the United States holds annual military exercises with South Korea, he said North Korea will continue to boost its nuclear weapons capability for national defense.
North Korea has never launched an intercontinental ballistic missile. A modified version of an ICBM known as the road-mobile KN-08 was among the hardware shown off at a huge military parade in Pyongyang in 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party.
Since Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election in November, North Korea has been refraining from military provocations in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
North Korea observers assume Kim’s regime is taking a wait-and-see approach to the United States and its allies until the Trump administration’s foreign policy positions become clearer.
Kim did not specifically indicate around when North Korea might test-fire the long-range missile, which could potentially deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland, neither did he mention Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, by name.
Trump has called Kim a “maniac” and championed the need to put strong pressure on North Korea, but suggested before he was elected that he could have a meeting with Kim over hamburgers.
During his address of around 30 minutes, which was monitored in Beijing, Kim, meanwhile, pointed his finger at South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Kim denounced Park, who was impeached by parliament last month over a corruption scandal, for taking a hard-line stance on North Korea, and underscored the need for preventing military conflicts.
He made no mention of Japan, another major ally of the United States in the region.
Besides Kim’s resolve to advance Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, which was not stated in the previous year’s address, what may also be noteworthy was his humble and rare reflection of himself.
Wearing a black suit and glasses, Kim revealed at the end of his speech that he spent 2016 with a “feeling of remorse” as he lacked competence.
“This year, I will be more motivated … to become a faithful servant serving the people with pure and sincere dedication,” he said.
North Korea has been the subject of severe U.N. sanctions banning it from developing or testing nuclear and ballistic missile technologies.
Despite that, last year alone it test-fired more than 20 ballistic missiles and conducted two nuclear tests, most recently in September, which was its fifth and largest.
North Korea is planning to hold a series of events in 2017 to recognize and heap praise on the Kim family’s three generations in power.
In his New Year’s address in 2016, Kim said he would seek improved relations with South Korea and suggested a readiness to engage in talks with Seoul.
However, less than a week later, North Korea shocked the world with its first nuclear test in three years, claiming that it was a successful and unprecedented miniaturized hydrogen bomb detonation.
North Korea has said the scheduled 2017 celebrations will coincide with the fifth anniversary of Kim Jong Un becoming the country’s top leader, the 105th year since its late founder, Kim Il Sung, was born, and what would have been the 75th birthday of Kim Jong Il, who died of heart failure in late 2011.
It has said the celebrations will start in earnest from Kim Jong Un’s birthday on Jan. 8.
In 2013, Kim became the first North Korean leader in nearly 20 years to give a speech on New Year’s Day and he has done so every year since.
His father, Kim Jong Il, never delivered a New Year’s address during his 17-year rule. His message was instead carried in the form of an editorial in North Korea’s major newspapers.