U.S. short­ens N. Korea’s ICBM time­line

The De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency has con­cluded that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be able to pro­duce a “re­li­able, nu­clear-ca­pa­ble ICBM” pro­gram some­time in 2018, mean­ing that by next year the pro­gram will have ad­vanced from pro­to­type to assem­bly lin

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL -

North Korea will be able to field a re­li­able, nu­clear-ca­pa­ble in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile as early as next year, U.S. of­fi­cials have con­cluded in a con­fi­den­tial as­sess­ment that shrinks the time­line for when Py­ongyang be­comes ca­pa­ble of strik­ing North Amer­i­can cities with atomic weapons.

The new as­sess­ment by the Pen­tagon’s De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency, which shaves a full two years off the con­sen­sus fore­cast for North Korea’s ICBM pro­gram, was prompted by re­cent mis­sile tests show­ing sur­pris­ing tech­ni­cal ad­vances by the coun­try’s weapons sci­en­tists, at a pace be­yond what many an­a­lysts be­lieved was pos­si­ble for the iso­lated com­mu­nist regime.

The U.S. pro­jec­tion closely mir­rors re­vised pre­dic­tions by South Korean in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials, who also have watched with grow­ing alarm as North Korea has ap­peared to mas­ter key tech­nolo­gies needed to loft a war­head to­ward tar­gets thou­sands of miles away.

The find­ing fur­ther in­creases the pres­sure on U. S. and Asian lead­ers to halt North Korea’s progress be­fore it can threaten the world with nu­clear-tipped mis­siles. U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, dur­ing his visit to Poland ear­lier this month, vowed to con­front Py­ongyang “very strongly” to stop its mis­sile ad­vances.

The De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency has con­cluded that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be able to pro­duce a “re­li­able, nu­clear-ca­pa­ble ICBM” pro­gram some­time in 2018, mean­ing that by next year the pro­gram will have ad­vanced from pro­to­type to assem­bly line, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the doc­u­ment.

Al­ready, the ag­gres­sive test­ing the regime put in place in re­cent months has al­lowed North Korea to val­i­date its ba­sic de­signs, putting it within a few months of start­ing in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion, the of­fi­cials said.

The De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency and the Of­fice of the Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence de­clined to speak about any clas­si­fied as­sess­ments.

But Scott Bray, the of­fice’s na­tional in­tel­li­gence man­ager for East Asia, said in a state­ment: “North Korea’s re­cent test of an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal range bal­lis­tic mis­sile — which was not a sur­prise to the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity — is one of the mile­stones that we have ex­pected would help re­fine our time­line and judg­ments on the threats that Kim Jong Un poses to the con­ti­nen­tal United States.

“This test, and its im­pact on our as­sess­ments, high­light the threat that North Korea’s nu­clear and bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­grams pose to the United States, to our al­lies in the re­gion, and to the whole world.”

One of the few re­main­ing tech­ni­cal hur­dles is the chal­lenge of at­mo­spheric “re-en­try” — the abil­ity to de­sign a mis­sile that can pass through the up­per at­mos­phere with­out dam­age to the war­head. Long regarded as a for­mi­da­ble tech­no­log­i­cal bar­rier for im­pov­er­ished North Korea, that mile­stone could be reached, be­gin­ning with new tests ex­pected to take place within days, U.S. an­a­lysts said.

U.S. of­fi­cials have de­tected signs that North Korea is mak­ing fi­nal prepa­ra­tions for test­ing a new re- en­try ve­hi­cle as early as Thurs­day, a North Korean na­tional hol­i­day mark­ing the end of fight­ing in the Korean War.

“They’re on track to do that, es­sen­tially, this week,” said a U.S. of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with the in­tel­li­gence re­port who, like oth­ers, in­sisted on anonymity to dis­cuss sen­si­tive mil­i­tary as­sess­ments.

North Korea has not yet demon­strated an abil­ity to build a minia­tur­ized nu­clear war­head that could be car­ried by one of its mis­siles. Of­fi­cials there last year dis­played a sphere-shaped de­vice the regime de­scribed as a minia­tur­ized war­head, but there has been no public con­fir­ma­tion that this mile­stone has been achieved.

Prepa­ra­tions re­port­edly have been un­der­way for sev­eral months for what would be the coun­try’s sixth un­der­ground nu­clear test. The last one, in Septem­ber, had an es­ti­mated yield of 20 to 30 kilo­tons, more than dou­ble the ex­plo­sive force of any pre­vi­ous test.

North Korea star­tled the world with its suc­cess­ful July 4 test of a mis­sile ca­pa­ble of strik­ing parts of Alaska — the first such mis­sile with proven in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal range. The launch of a twostage “Hwa­song-14” mis­sile was the lat­est in a se­ries of tests in re­cent months that have re­vealed rapid ad­vances across a num­ber of tech­ni­cal fields, from the mas­tery of solid-fuel tech­nol­ogy to the launch of the first sub­ma­rine-based mis­sile, cur­rent and for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials and weapons ex­perts said.

“There has been alarm­ing progress,” said Joseph De­Trani, the for­mer mis­sion man­ager for North Korea for the Of­fice of the Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence and a for­mer spe­cial en­voy for ne­go­ti­a­tions with Py­ongyang. “In the last year, they have gained ca­pa­bil­i­ties that they didn’t have, in­clud­ing ones that we thought they would not have been able to ob­tain for years.”

The July 4 mis­sile test also caught South Korea’s in­tel­li­gence ser­vice off-guard, prompt­ing a hasty re­vi­sion of fore­casts, ac­cord­ing to South Korean law­mak­ers who have re­ceived pri­vate brief­ings.

“The speed of North Korea’s ICBM mis­sile de­vel­op­ment is faster than the South Korean De­fense Min­istry ex­pected,” said law­maker Lee Cheol-hee, of the left­ist Min­joo party, who at­tended an in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee brief­ing af­ter the mis­sile test.

The South Korean gov­ern­ment, which is ac­tively try­ing to en­gage the regime in Py­ongyang, has de­clined to call the most re­cent test a suc­cess. North Korea still has not proved it has mas­tered some of the steps needed to build a re­li­able ICBM, most notably the re-en­try ve­hi­cle, Lee said.

Still, of­fi­cials across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum ac­knowl­edged that North Korea is rapidly gain­ing ground.

“Now they are ap­proach­ing the fi­nal stage of be­ing a nu­clear power and the owner of an ICBM,” said Cha Du-hyeogn, who served as an ad­viser to con­ser­va­tive for­mer Pres­i­dent Lee Myung-bak.

Mean­while Tues­day, the U.S. and China said they are mak­ing progress on a new U.N. res­o­lu­tion that would im­pose ad­di­tional sanc­tions against North Korea be­cause of its mis­sile tests.

The U. S. gave China a pro­posed res­o­lu­tion sev­eral weeks ago, and U.S. Am­bas­sador Nikki Ha­ley told re­porters that China has been ne­go­ti­at­ing with its close ally Rus­sia on pos­si­ble new sanc­tions.

“The true test will be what they’ve worked out with Rus­sia,” she said.

China’s U.N. am­bas­sador, Liu Jieyi, told two jour­nal­ists that “we are mak­ing progress” and “we are work­ing as hard as we can.”

But nei­ther Ha­ley nor Liu would es­ti­mate how long it will take be­fore they agree on a draft that can be cir­cu­lated to the rest of the 15-mem­ber Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and then put to a vote.

“There is cer­tainly light at the end of the tun­nel and we are work­ing to­ward that light, and I can’t re­ally tell how much time we would need,” Liu said. In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Ellen Nakashima, Anna Fi­field and Joby War­rick of The Wash­ing­ton Post and by Edith M. Led­erer of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

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