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
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.