“Advances in ballistic missile delivery systems, coupled with developments in nuclear technology … are in line with North Korea’s stated objective of being able to strike the U.S. homeland,” the Office of the Secretary of Defense said in an annual report on the North Korea threat.
“North Korea will move closer to this goal, as well as increase the threat it poses to U.S. forces and allies in the region, if it continues testing and devoting scarce regime resources to these programs,” the Pentagon concluded, adding that how fast this occurs will be determined partially on the frequency of North Korea’s nuclear tests.
“North Korea continues to develop the [Taepodong 2] which could reach parts of the United States if configured as an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload,” according to the analysis.
The Pentagon highlighted North Korea’s first-ever successful launch in December of a long-range ballistic missile — the experimental Taepodong 2 that is thought capable of striking the U.S. West Coast. The North promoted the event as a peaceful satellite launch.
The North has technical hurdles to overcome before it can be said to have a reliable ICBM, according to the DOD report. “Developing a [satellite launch vehicle] contributes heavily to North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile development, since the two vehicles have many shared technologies. However, a space launch does not test a re-entry vehicle, without which North Korea cannot deliver a weapon to target from an ICBM.”
Pyongyang has also publicly displayed a newer road-mobile ICBM, the KN-08, that is a source of serious concern to U.S. defense planners. “This new mobile ICBM has not been flight tested,” the report notes. Absent an actual live trial, it is difficult for international missile experts to assess the development level and threat posed by the KN-08.
North Korea also has a force of medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles it can use to threaten South Korea, Japan, and U.S. forces deployed in the Asia-Pacific.
The report estimates North Korea’s longer-range high-altitude missile force at under 50 Nodongmedium-range missiles, which have a range of roughly 800 miles; fewer than 50 intermediate-range Musudan missiles, with ranges possibly in excess of 2,000 miles; and an uncertain quantity of experimental Taepodong 2 missiles. The report did not offer an estimate of how many KN-08 missiles have been built. Some independent experts have speculated that the KN-08 missiles spotted at a military parade in spring 2012 were just mockups.
The aspiring nuclear power has conducted three underground atomic detonations to date. Its most recent test in February is considered the most powerful yet and preparations are thought to have been made at the Punggye-ri site for at least one more nuclear explosion. “North Korea could conduct additional nuclear tests at any time,” the Pentagon said.
The report did not offer an estimate on how much fissile material the country could have stockpiled or be capable of producing annually. Outside estimates put the current amount of plutonium at about six weapons worth. Pyongyang last month declared it would dedicate more atomic facilities to fissile material production including its only known uranium enrichment plant and a mothballed Soviet-era plutonium production reactor. There are also concerns about an experimental light-water reactor that the North is believed close to completing.
There have long been unconfirmed reports by regime defectors of North Korean research into biological warfare; this work is believed to be ongoing, the Pentagon said. “Infrastructure, combined with its weapons industry, gives North Korea a potentially robust biological warfare capability,” the report states.
The Pentagon has somewhat more confidence in its assessment of Pyongyang’s chemical warfare capabilities: “North Korea probably has had a longstanding chemical weapons program with the capability to produce nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents and likely possesses a CW stockpile.” These materials could be disseminated in attacks using artillery rounds and ballistic missiles.
North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un is largely expected to adhere to the policies followed by his late father, Kim Jong Il, for maintaining power including through use of “coercive diplomacy” and the pursuit of strategic weapons to discourage foreign attack, according to the Pentagon.
“The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korea’s continued provocations and steadfast in commitments to allies in the region, including the security provided by extended deterrence commitments through both the nuclear umbrella and conventional forces,” the report says.
The North’s attempts to skirt U.N. Security Council sanctions banning its export of weapons pose an ongoing “security challenge” for the United States and friendly nations, the document adds.
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