Trump, North Korea trade threats
U.S. president vows to respond with ‘power’; Pyongyang says it is studying attack on Guam.
North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit on its missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded in a confidential assessment.
News of the breakthrough, and renewed belligerence by North Korea, drew a harsh response Tuesday from President Donald Trump.
“They will be met with the fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” said Trump, speaking at an event at his Bedminster, N.J., golf course.
North Korea countered that it was examining a plan to attack Guam, a U.S. territory that is home to a U.S. Air Force base, in response to a recent American ICBM test.
The new analysis of North Korea’s nuclear capability, completed last month by the Defense Intelligence Agency, comes on the heels of another intelligence assessment that sharply raises the official estimate for the total number of bombs in the communist country’s atomic arsenal. The U.S. calculated last month that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un now controls up to 60 nuclear weapons. Some independent experts believe the number of bombs is much smaller.
The findings are likely to deepen concerns about an evolving North Korean military threat that appears to be advancing far more rapidly than many experts had predicted. U.S. officials last month concluded that Pyongyang is also outpacing expectations in its effort to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking cities on the American mainland.
While more than a decade has passed since North Korea’s first nuclear detonation, many analysts believed it would be years before the country’s weapons scientists could design a compact warhead that could be delivered by missile to distant targets. But the new assessment, a summary document dated July 28, concludes that this critical milestone has already been reached.
“The IC (intelligence community) assesses North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles,” the assessment states.
The assessment’s broad conclusions were verified by two U.S. officials familiar with the document. It is not yet known whether the reclusive regime has successfully tested the smaller warhead, although North Korea last year claimed to have done so.
The DIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
An assessment this week by the Japanese Ministry of Defense also concludes there is evidence to suggest that North Korea has achieved miniaturization.
North Korea on Tuesday described a new round of United Nations sanctions as an attempt “to strangle a nation” and warned that in response “physical action will be taken mercilessly with the mobilization of all its national strength.”
Kim is becoming increasingly confident in the reliability of his nuclear arsenal, analysts have concluded, explaining perhaps the dictator’s willingness to engage in defiant behavior, including missile tests that have drawn criticism even from North Korea’s closest ally, China. On Saturday, both China and Russia joined other members of the U.N. Security Council in approving punishing new economic sanctions, including a ban on exports that supply up to a third of North Korea’s annual $3 billion earnings.
The nuclear progress further raises the stakes for Trump, who has vowed that North Korea will never be allowed to threaten the United States with nuclear weapons. In an interview broadcast Saturday on MSNBC’s “Hugh Hewitt Show,” national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the prospect of a North Korea armed with nuclear-tipped ICBMs would be “intolerable, from the president’s perspective.”
“We have to provide all options ... and that includes a military option,” he said.
But McMaster said the administration would do everything short of war to “pressure Kim Jong Un and those around him, such that they conclude it is in their interest to denuclearize.”
The options said to be under discussion ranged from new multilateral negotiations to reintroducing U.S. battlefield nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula, officials familiar with internal discussions said.
Determining the precise makeup of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has long been a difficult challenge for intelligence professionals because of the regime’s culture of extreme secrecy and insularity. The country’s weapons scientists have conducted five nuclear tests since 2006, the latest being a 20- to 30-kiloton detonation on Sept. 9, 2016, that produced a blast estimated to be up to twice that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.
But producing a compact nuclear warhead that can fit inside a missile is a technically demanding feat, one that many analysts believed was still beyond North Korea’s grasp. Last year, state-run media in Pyongyang displayed a spherical device that government spokesmen described as a miniaturized nuclear warhead, but whether it was a real bomb was unclear. North Korean officials described the September detonation as a successful test of a small warhead designed to fit on a missile, though many experts were skeptical of the claim.
Kim has repeatedly proclaimed his intention to field a fleet of nuclear-tipped ICBMs as a guarantor of his regime’s survival. His regime took a major step toward that goal last month with the first successful tests of a missile with intercontinental range.
Video analysis of the latest test led some analysts to conclude that the missile caught fire and disintegrated as it plunged back toward Earth’s surface, suggesting North Korea’s engineers might not yet be capable of building a reentry vehicle that can carry the warhead safely through the upper atmosphere. But U.S. analysts and many independent experts believe that this hurdle will be overcome by late next year.
“What initially looked like a slow-motion Cuban missile crisis is now looking more like the Manhattan Project, just barreling along,” said Robert Litwak, a nonproliferation expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “Preventing North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout,” published by the center this year. “There’s a sense of urgency behind the program that is new to the Kim Jong Un era.”
President Donald Trump threatened on Tuesday to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea if it endangers the United States.