North Korea Can Miniaturize a Nuclear Weapon, U.S. Says

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North Korean Missiles
A South Korean man watches a TV news program showing the file footage of the North Korean missiles on a military parade at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul on March 13, 2015. Photographer: Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo

North Korea has deployed its new road-mobile KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile and is capable of mounting a miniaturized nuclear warhead on it, the U.S.’s top homeland security commander said.

“Our assessment is that they have the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the homeland,” Admiral William Gortney, the head of the U.S. Northern Command, told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon. “We have not seen them do that” and “we haven’t seen them test the KN-08.”

He said “yes sir” when asked if the U.S. thinks North Korea has succeeded in the complicated task of miniaturizing a warhead for use on such a missile. North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006.

Gortney’s remarks are the strongest to date by a U.S. military official about the status of the KN-O8 missile and North Korea’s progress in making a nuclear weapon small enough to put on it, although they reflected the customary caution about what’s going on in the insular country.

Gortney said in congressional testimony last month that the KN-08’s mobility “will complicate our ability to provide warning and defense against an attack.” On Tuesday, he said that if North Korea were to fire a missile at the U.S., “I am confident we can knock it down.”

Possible Range

The KN-08 may have a maximum range of 9,000 kilometers (5,592 miles), far enough to reach the West Coast, aerospace engineer John Schilling and security analyst Henry Kan wrote in a report on “38 North,” a blog monitoring North Korea.

Past statements by the U.S. and South Korea that the North has gained the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon have been “followed by oddly parsed statements suggesting that maybe they haven’t,” Jeffrey Lewis, a specialist on East Asia nonproliferation issues at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, wrote in February on 38 North.

Gortney’s comment comes as U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter plans to visit Seoul on Thursday for talks on ways to bolster deterrence against North Korea. His Asian trip includes a stop in Japan and coincides with annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises that North Korea calls a rehearsal for nuclear war. The allies call the drills defensive in nature.

North Korea claimed after its last nuclear test in 2013 that it had the ability to hit the mainland U.S. with nuclear-tipped missiles. It also defied United Nations Security Council resolutions by test-firing ballistic missiles.

North Korea probably needs to improve the reliability and accuracy of its intercontinental ballistic missile, “hurdles that even more advanced industrialized countries would find challenging,” Schilling and Kan wrote.

“North Korea is seriously pursuing the deployment of more capable, longer-range, more survivable weapons,” they wrote. “In short, North Korea has already achieved a level of delivery system development that will allow it to establish itself as a small nuclear power in the coming years.”

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