South Korea has cast doubt over North Korea’s claims that it can conduct a nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland.
North Korea has conducted three tests of two different types of intercontinental ballistic missile, and while the South acknowledges that the rogue regime’s ballistic missile development program is progressing faster than expected, Seoul remains suspicious of North Korea’s claims.
“There is no concrete evidence that they have mastered the technology that is required to be able to put a nuclear device on a long-range nuclear missile,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told CNN in an interview aired Tuesday.
North Korea tested its new Hwasong-15 ICBM, the successor to the Hwasong-14 ICBM tested twice in July, last Tuesday, demonstrating the theoretical ability to strike anywhere in the continental U.S.
This test was preceded by a successful test of a staged thermonuclear bomb two months earlier. The North released images of the warhead prior to that particularly-alarming nuclear test, and afterwards, it claimed it could mount the warhead on the Hwasong-14, which analysts assess could strike parts, if not most, of the continental U.S.
After the Nov. 28 test, Pyongyang claimed that all of the U.S. mainland is in reach.
“They haven’t demonstrated their reentry capability,” Kang told CNN, “They haven’t demonstrated their remote targeting, or the miniaturization that is required to do this.”
Evidence, specifically the observations of the crew of a Cathay Pacific flight that saw the missile explode and break apart while re-entering the atmosphere, suggests that the missile failed during re-entry, although it is possible that the lofted trajectory put high levels of additional stress on the re-entry vehicle, stress that would be significantly reduced on a minimum energy trajectory.
“They have not yet reached the final, final completion stage yet,” the foreign minister added, apparently expressing a need to see an end-to-end live nuclear-tipped missile test that proves North Korea’s capabilities.
Several leading analysts have arrived at different conclusions, arguing that North Korea has emerged as a nuclear-armed state. “We’re now at a point where they have tested an ICBM that can clearly hit the U.S. … They’ve tested a nuclear weapon that had a couple hundred kilotons’ yield, which they say is a miniaturized thermonuclear weapon, which kind of looks like a miniaturized thermonuclear weapon to me,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told the Atlantic.
“It’s done. It’s over,” he explained.
The Defense Intelligence Agency has assessed that North Korea has produced miniaturized nuclear warheads for its missiles, and the Central Intelligence Agency reportedly believes that North Korea’s ICBM re-entry vehicles would survive on a standard launch trajectory. If accurate, it would suggest that North Korea might be able to launch a nuclear strike against a U.S. city.
Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Lewis’ colleague, argues that there is strong evidence that North Korea could launch a nuclear strike against the U.S. “They’ve had the underlying technological capability to do that for awhile now,” he said on Twitter recently, What’s left to do is to build out and deploy an ICBM force.”
“From a defense planning perspective, certainly, you don’t make unnecessarily sunny assumptions,” he added.
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