On Oct. 10, North Korea delivered the surprise gift the U.S. had been warned was coming. It was a massive, road-mobile, intercontinental ballistic missile that experts called “a monster.”
“Yes, it is a monster,” said Ambassador Joe Detrani, former U.S. special envoy to North Korea.
Detrani said the enormous missile, called the Hwasong-16, “is significantly larger than any ICBM we’ve seen in the past — from anyone.”
Almost 90 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, it required a transporter erector launcher vehicle with 11 axles. The missile is also believed to be capable of theoretically striking two U.S. cities, such as D.C. and New York, simultaneously.
The unveiling took place during an unprecedented pre-dawn parade on the 75th anniversary of North Korea’s Workers’ Party.
In the eight years since he assumed control of North Korea, Kim Jong Un has relentlessly forged the reclusive, heavily sanctioned nation into what one U.S. intelligence source called, “an opaque, dangerous, global threat the world may have assumed is no longer a threat.”
It’s now a dictatorship believed to be armed with dozens of nuclear weapons and missiles that could, in the highly unlikely event that U.S. defenses go down, possibly destroy vast portions of the the country.
With no nuclear talks on the horizon, it appears the sky is the limit for Kim’s program.
Dr. Jung Pak, a former top CIA, North Korea expert, is worried that disaster may be approaching, as the U.S. is distracted with its own national issues.
“What worries me about Kim Jong Un is that the threat perception of North Korea has declined quite a bit since 2017,” said Pak, a former deputy national intelligence officer on the National Intelligence Council in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Pak, who until 2016 was the CIA’s top analyst on North Korea, said, “The absence of tough talk from Kim Jong Un and the absence of big demonstrations of nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile testing lull us into a view that maybe Kim Jong Un is not dangerous after all.”
But the début of the Hwasong-16 is a clear indication of the danger lurking from North Korea.
There is, however, widespread speculation about whether the Hwasong-16 is real or is just a mock-up.
Detrani said, “My personal view is when North Korea puts something out there like this, it’s actual. It’s a fact.”
According to Pak, “North Korea has between 20 to 60 nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Un has conducted four times more ballistic missile tests than his father and his grandfather combined.”
Kim has directed four of North Korea’s six nuclear tests during his relatively brief rule, accelerating the development of the country’s nuclear weapons program from lofty ambition to solid reality.
Pak, author of the new book “Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator,” said not only has Kim sought to grow his country’s nuclear arsenal, but under his leadership, North Korea has successfully modified or shrunk those weapons for use on a range of powerful missiles, such as the gigantic Hwasong-16.
It’s a process called miniaturization.
“We have to assume that they have succeeded and are close to or have achieved that miniaturization,” Pak said.
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The next step, which would make North Korea a true regional or international nuclear threat, is pairing those miniaturized, nuclear weapons with missile delivery systems.
That box is also checked, according to Detrani.
“I believe North Korea can mate their miniaturized, nuclear warheads with their missile-delivery systems. I think they established that capability before 2017, when they had the thermonuclear test of a nuclear weapon,” Detrani said.
North Korea warned the U.S. in July that it was preparing “an early Christmas gift.” Experts speculated, the so-called gift would likely be another nuclear test or missile unveiling.
The key question is whether Kim will resume the bellicose rhetoric deployed against the U.S. in the past.
Kim had struck up what appeared to be a friendship, based on excerpts of letters he and President Donald Trump exchanged with each other, and based on optics during three highly touted meetings in 2018 and 2019.
But the relationship — an attempt at “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” or CVID of the Korean peninsula — failed, leaving Kim deserted and disappointed without achieving his goal of sanctions relief.
And according to Pak, Kim will likely try to use that disappointment to his advantage.
“Kim requires a hostile outside world, and he’s going to convey that to his people through his propaganda. What we can reliably predict is that it’s just a matter of time before we have another strategic provocation,” Pak said.