North Korea is reportedly able to field a reliable, nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile much earlier than initially expected, according to U.S. officials.
A confidential assessment from the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency predicts North Korea will have a reliable, nuclear-armed ICBM that can strike the U.S. as early as next year, two years earlier than expected, according to The Washington Post.
After North Korea tested its new Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile in mid-May, South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo commented that North Korea’s missile program is progressing faster than expected. Earlier this month, North Korea tested the Hwasong-14 ICBM, shocking the world with capabilities that many suspected were still beyond the North Korean military. Experts believe the HS-14 has a range of 4,500 to 6,000 miles, putting Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the West Coast in jeopardy.
Another ICBM test may come in the next week or so, as U.S. military intelligence has detected possible preparations for a test in Kusong, according to the Diplomat.
The aggressive development program for North Korean missiles suggests that the North may be able to move from testing to production in only a matter of months.
Some observers suspect that the technological obstacles North Korea will have to overcome to achieve its goals include the miniaturization of a nuclear bomb and the development of a durable reentry vehicle that can survive the stress an ICBM experiences during flight.
“There isn’t 100 percent proof that they have a warhead that would go on this missile,” a senior research associate at the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies told The Daily Caller News Foundation, referring to the new ICBM. “I suspect that after five nuclear tests that it is very probable that they could do such a thing.”
“The major question now is not whether the warhead is small enough to mount on an ICBM—it is—but whether it is rugged enough to survive the shock, vibration, and extreme temperatures that a nuclear warhead would experience on an intercontinental trajectory,” Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs article.
There is some evidence that North Korea may demonstrate that it has a reliable re-entry vehicle in its next test. “They’re on track to do that, essentially this week,” a U.S. official familiar with the latest intelligence report told The Washington Post.
North Korea also faces certain challenges with the development of heavy trucks and launchers, but has demonstrated the ability to overcome this obstacle.
The Pukguksong-2 (KN-15) medium-range ballistic missile was rolled out on an independently-produced transporter erector launcher (TEL), which represented a significant breakthrough for North Korea allowing them to move past a significant development bottleneck. For the time being, North Korean ICBMs are being rolled out on Chinese trucks and fired from launch stands, but that will likely change once the North can produce its own launch vehicles.
“North Korea does not want to launch one ICBM. They want to launch many ICBMs simultaneously to increase the odds of hitting something, overcoming failures, and defeating any kind of ballistic missile defense,” Hanham previously explained to TheDCNF. North Korea wants to multiple ICBMs rolling around the country at all times, increasing their survivability and establishing a reliable nuclear deterrence against the U.S.
The Trump administration is currently pursuing a diplomatic solution, but the window may be closing, clearing the way for a military solution.
“We should give Secretary Tillerson full support in attempting to resolve this diplomatically and economically even as we recognize that it may not happen, and there may have to be a follow-up option, which is the military option,” General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a forum last week, commenting that war with North Korea is “not unimaginable.” Conflict would bring devastation at levels not seen in decades though.
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