North Korea has taken the initial steps toward fielding a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that could be capable of hitting parts of the U.S., according to U.S. intelligence agencies.
The KN-08 has been been displayed twice in parades, and “we assess that North Korea has already taken initial steps towards fielding this system, although it remains untested,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said in his latest annual unclassified Worldwide Threat assessment.
North Korea’s missile development, along with concern about Iranian weapons programs, is the principle rationale for the $34 billion U.S. ground based-missile defense program managed by Boeing Co., which hasn’t had a successful interception test since December 2008.
The Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center said in its latest public report last year that the missile, also known as the Hwasong-13, is estimated to have a maximum range of at least 5,500 kilometers (3,420 miles), far enough to reach Alaska but not the Pacific Northwest.
An analyst who follows North Korean missile developments said he was skeptical of Clapper’s claim and whether it has any real-world significance.
“The most important thing to know about this system is that it has never flown,” said Greg Thielmann, senior fellow at the Washington-based Arms Control Association and a former State Department official in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “It doesn’t give us any hard evidence that the North Koreans are any closer to an operational road-mobile ICBM.”
Thielmann said that, provided that Clapper’s statement was “carefully and honestly formulated, one would have to assume that” intelligence agencies have “observed North Korea conducting large rocket-engine tests, road-mobile missile deployment operational training” and ground support equipment.
The most definitive step toward fielding a missile “is conducting flight tests,” he said.
“Whether or not North Korea has a road-mobile ICBM that can fly the distance is independent of whether or nor it has been able to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to fit and operate reliably on top of it,” he said. “The technical challenges are separate and distinct.”
Markus Schiller, a missile-defense analyst based in Munich, said in an e-mail that “laymen are not aware” that Clapper’s statement about the missiles being displayed twice “means they displayed mock-ups, as is always done in military parades.”
“At least in the ‘open world’ with access to open sources, no one has ever seen a real KN-08 missile,” said Schiller, who’s also written on North Korea’s missile threat for the Santa Monica, California-based Rand Corp.
Retiring U.S. Forces Korea Commander Army General James Thurman told reporters in October that while it is “difficult to assess” the missile’s full operational capability, it demonstrates North Korea’s “continued desire to develop long-range missiles.”