The U.S. Intelligence Community believes that North Korea will test a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) this year in an attempt to prove that Kim Jong-un has the capability to strike directly at the American homeland. The North Korean regime has been preparing its new missile for the past several years and has developed miniaturized nuclear warhead designs to fit atop such a weapon.
“North Korea is poised to conduct its first ICBM flight test in 2017 based on public comments that preparations to do so are almost complete and would serve as a milestone toward a more reliable threat to the U.S. mainland,” reads congressional testimony from Daniel Coats, director of National Intelligence. “Pyongyang’s enshrinement of the possession of nuclear weapons in its constitution, while repeatedly stating that nuclear weapons are the basis for its survival, suggests that Kim does not intend to negotiate them away at any price.”
Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey told The National Interest that he concurs with Coates’ assessment. “They could flight test anytime,” Lewis said. “The first few tests will probably fail, but I would think somewhere between two to eight tests [is what it will probably take for North Korea to succeed in developing a operational ICBM].”
According to Coats’s testimony, North Korean missile tests in 2016 were an indication that Kim is intent on proving his ability to strike directly at the United States. “North Korea’s unprecedented level of testing and displays of strategic weapons in 2016 indicate that Kim is intent on proving he has the capability to strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons,” Coats told the Congress. “In 2016, the regime conducted two nuclear tests—including one that was claimed to be of a standardized warhead design—and an unprecedented number of missile launches, including a space launch that put a satellite into orbit.”
As might be expected, North Korea has likely learned lessons from its missile tests that will eventually pave the way towards a reliable weapon that could achieve the regime’s goal of hitting the U.S. homeland. “These ballistic missile tests probably shortened North Korea’s pathway toward a reliable ICBM, which largely uses the same technology,” Coats’s testimony states. “Kim was also photographed beside a nuclear warhead design and missile airframes to show that North Korea has warheads small enough to fit on a missile, examining a reentry-vehicle nosecone after a simulated reentry, and overseeing launches from a submarine and from mobile launchers in the field, purportedly simulating nuclear use in warfighting scenarios.”
Meanwhile, the Kim regime is expanding its ability to strike conventionally at South Korea, Japan and U.S. forces stationed in the region. “North Korea possesses a substantial number of proven mobile ballistic missiles, capable of striking a variety of targets in both countries, as demonstrated in successful launches in 2016,” Coates told Congress. “Kim has further expanded the regime’s conventional strike options in recent years, with more realistic training, artillery upgrades, and new close-range ballistic missiles that enable precision fire at ranges that can reach more US and allied targets in South Korea.”
Thus, the Kim regime continues to be a growing irritant for the United States in the Western Pacific with no clear solution in sight.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image: National Nuclear Security Administration