North Korea missile threat to US deemed ‘credible’

WASHINGTON — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s statement on New Year’s Day that North Korea is close to launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is not bluster.

“It is credible,” said a former top U.S. official with close ties in efforts to convince North Korea to shut down its nuclear and missile programs.

Ambassador Joseph Detrani, former U.S. special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, told WTOP on Tuesday, “North Korea’s been working on this capability for a number of years.”

Detrani believes, despite global sanctions designed to prevent it, the Kim regime may be on the brink of a game-changing breakthrough.

“The assessment of many who watch North Korea is that they have this capability and that they are prepared in 2017 to test launch an ICBM that can reach the whole of the United States,” Detrani said.

Detrani sat across from North Korean nuclear negotiators during U.S. talks and led six-party and bilateral talks from 2003 to 2006, and he says a much more ominous scenario is looming.

A successful ICBM test means that “within two to three years, North Korea possibly would be capable of mating a nuclear weapon to an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Detrani said.

Kim said in a televised New Year’s Day speech, “Research and development of cutting-edge arms equipment is actively progressing, and ICBM rocket test launch preparation is in its last stage.”

Detrani — now president of the Daniel Morgan Academy — and other North Korea watchers believe Kim’s regime is working on a mobile ICBM called the KNO8. Based on publicly available documentation, the KNO8 is a three-stage missile with a possible range of more than 7,000 miles — Detrani believes it could reach D.C.

Missile development is only a part of the concern facing North Korea’s neighbors, and U.S.
State Department spokesman John Kirby addressed the emerging crisis during a press briefing Tuesday.

“We do not believe that [Kim Jong Un] at this point in time has the capability to tip one of these [missiles] with a nuclear warhead,” Kirby said.

While Kirby was unwilling to go any further in assessing the current situation, he did add, “We do know that he continues to want to have those capabilities and he continues — the programs continue to march in that direction, which is why, quite frankly, that the whole international community is as galvanized as it is to try to deter and to stop that.”

There is little doubt that the impoverished country where the United Nations estimates millions of people have died from starvation in recent years has already developed a nuclear weapon, and may have several.

“Given that North Korea, by many estimates, has been able to miniaturize their nuclear weapons, it’s likely that they are working on mating these miniaturized nuclear weapons to this intercontinental ballistic missile system, which will have to be tested,” Detrani said.

President Barack Obama expressed grave concern about the situation in a September 2016 statement.

“The United States condemns North Korea’s Sept. 9 nuclear test in the strongest possible terms as a grave threat to regional security and to international peace and stability,” Obama said. “North Korea stands out as the only country to have tested nuclear weapons this century.”

That nuclear test came after a string of short-range missile tests that signaled North Korea’s ultimate intention to Obama’s administration.

“Today’s test, North Korea’s second this year, follows an unprecedented campaign of ballistic missile launches, which North Korea claims are intended to serve as delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons targeting the United States and our allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan,” Obama said.

In the same message, Obama echoed his predecessor, George W. Bush, who said on June 26, 2008, “The policy the policy of the United States is a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.”

“To be clear, the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state,” Obama said.

If that is indeed true, President-elect Donald Trump, according to a top former weapons inspector, may face an early crisis.

“I would be greatly surprised if, in the early months of the new administration of President Trump, we do not see a direct challenge by the North Koreans in terms of missiles of some range being tested and fired, and additional underground nuclear tests to directly challenge us,” said Dr. David Kay, senior policy adviser at the Potomac Institute. “That’s the way they behave. It’s a part of their DNA.”

Kay told WTOP that North Korea’s missile program is designed to do several things: “One, to provide it some sort of security deterrence against what they view as the possibility of a U. S.-led South Korean attack. But more importantly, it is a sign for them of their legitimacy on their national stage and their survivability.”

Leaders from China, Japan, South Korea and the rest of North Korea’s regional neighbors and beyond all wrestle, according to experts, with the question: Would North Korea use a nuclear weapon?

The answer for Kay is clear.

“If the regime believes its survival is at stake, it certainly would use nuclear weapons,” Kay said. “They have no place to go. They’re at the only place where they can exercise their tyrannical power the way they choose.”

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up