North Korea is pushing forward with plans to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile, and the U.S. is quickly running out of options to stop them.
In his New Year’s address, Kim Jong-un declared that his country has “reached the final stage of preparations to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.” In response to Kim’s speech, President Donald Trump tweeted, “It won’t happen!”
Despite Trump’s strong statements dismissing Kim’s ambitions, many observers are not optimistic about America’s ability to stop North Korea from developing a long-range nuclear-armed missile capable of striking the contiguous U.S.
“It is difficult to calculate or predict when North Korea might achieve that capability, a reliable nuclear-armed ICBM, but certainly with the pace of testing they’ve been carrying out something in the next five to 10 years seems like a reasonable guess,” Gary Samore, the former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, told the Senate Committee on Arms Services Wednesday.
“Unfortunately, our ability to prevent North Korea from achieving that capability with military or diplomatic tools is very limited. Although we might be able to delay the program. In the end, I think deterrence and missile defense is probably going to be our most effective response.”
He called North Korea “the most significant and the most immediate” nuclear threat.
Options are limited when it comes to neutralizing North Korean nuclear ambitions. Negotiations and sanctions have largely failed. The application of military force or war would create countless complications, and regime change seems unlikely.
Samore’s comments are consistent with the pessimistic outlook of other former officials with a deep understanding of the Korean peninsula.
North Korea conducted its fifth and largest nuclear test September, 2016. “I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause,” said former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in October, 2016, explaining that it was unlikely the U.S. would ever be able to get the North to cooperate. Clapper made his remarks at a Council on Foreign Relations event in New York. “They are not going to do that — that is their ticket to survival.”
Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking North Korean defector, made similar observations a few months later.
“As long as Kim Jong-un is in power, North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons … the North will not give them up even if the country is offered $1 trillion or $10 trillion in return,” Thae explained. “It’s not a matter of economic incentives.”
Other credible observers believe that North Korea will have an operational ICBM in the near future. “It is very likely that by the end of Trump’s first term, the North Koreans will be able to reach Seattle with a nuclear weapon onboard an indigenously produced intercontinental ballistic missile,” Gen. Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA, said in November.
North Korea’s latest missile launch, which sent a salvo of four extended-range scuds into the Sea of Japan, was part of a drill simulating a nuclear strike against U.S. bases in Japan. The North conducted a drill last year, in which the hypothetical target was South Korea. North Korea is making progress on an intermediate-range missile capable of hitting targets beyond its immediate neighbors.
It may only be a matter of time until North Korea develops an effective ICBM to hit targets in the continental U.S.
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