WASHINGTON – North Korea must still overcome “important shortfalls” in developing a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile before it can field a weapon capable of hitting the U.S., according to the Pentagon’s intelligence agency.
Kim Jong Un’s regime “continues efforts to expand its stockpile of weapons-grade fissile materials,” but “there is still a lot of development needed before” it can deploy a weapon such as a mobile ICBM able to reach the U.S. mainland, Navy Cmdr. William Marks, a Defense Intelligence Agency spokesman, said via email.
The agency’s answers to questions about the nuclear program come as tensions on the Korean Peninsula remain high after Kim’s repeated weapons tests in violation of United Nations resolutions. In response, U.S. President Donald Trump deployed an aircraft carrier battle group and a nuclear submarine to reinforce defenses in the region. Trump has vowed Kim’s plans to develop a nuclear weapon capable of striking the U.S. “won’t happen.”
The danger posed by North Korea is likely to be a key topic at an annual Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday on “Worldwide Threats.” In addition to Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, officials at the hearing will include Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA chief Mike Pompeo and Andrew McCabe, the acting director of the FBI who replaced James Comey after he was fired Tuesday.
“Though we’ve seen North Korea accomplish some key milestones in specific short-range systems, important shortfalls remain in the development of longer range missiles,” the DIA said.
But Trump’s military options for North Korea are all grim.
The agency didn’t address estimates by other analysts that North Korea will need until at least 2020 to develop an ICBM with a nuclear warhead capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. But it does suggest there’s still time for diplomacy or military action to prevent that from happening.
Despite continued progress on North Korea’s weapons program, missiles capable of reaching the U.S. “are extremely complex systems that require multiple flight tests to identify and correct design or manufacturing defects,” so “without flight tests, the KN-08’s reliability as a weapons system is low,” Marks said.
The KN-08 is the Pentagon’s designation for a North Korean missile that’s intended to have an estimated range of more than 3,400 miles (5,500 km) and would be mounted on mobile launchers that are hard to track and detect.
The DIA statements “illustrate that North Korea does not have that capacity today and that the technical road ahead is challenging,” Steven Hildreth, a missile defense expert for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said in an email.
The Trump administration has signaled it wouldn’t rule out a preemptive strike to halt Kim’s weapons programs. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called North Korea an “imminent threat” that requires “immediate attention.” The administration has said, however, that it wants China to use its leverage over North Korea to reach a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Bruce Klingner, a former Korea deputy division chief at the CIA who’s now an Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the DIA’s statements don’t undercut Tillerson’s view of North Korea as an imminent threat “since we know” the regime’s “been working for some time on an ICBM.” But “one successful test can cause a dramatic reappraisal,” he said.
Based on the DIA statements, “if talking about an ICBM capable of striking the continental U.S., I would say it is ‘fast approaching,’ or a ‘near-term’ threat, not ‘imminent,”‘ Michael Elleman, a missile defense analyst for 38 North, a website that focuses on North Korea, said in an email.
But the threat to South Korea and Japan from North Korea’s shorter-range weapons is imminent, added Elleman, who said he found the DIA comments “reassuring.”
The DIA has based its view partly on North Korea’s inability — so far — to successfully flight-test an ICBM. The North Koreans have conducted static ground tests of ICBM engines and at least one ground-test of a re-entry vehicle that could carry a warhead, missile analyst Jeffrey Lewis said.
“We do not believe they would have success with either the booster” or re-entry vehicle that would carry a nuclear warhead “early in testing,” the DIA said.
Yet in April 2015, Adm. William Gortney, who was head of the U.S. Northern Command, said he considered the KN-08 to be operational and capable of carrying a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be launched toward the U.S.
“DIA is clearly hanging its hat on the lack of a flight test, which Kim Jong Un signaled could occur any time this year,” Lewis, director of East Asia nonproliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, said in an email.
“It is also clear they expect a first test to fail,” he said. “The judgment is probably analytically sound, but if the North Koreans get lucky there will be hell to pay.”