North Korea is expected to deploy a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching parts of the United States in the next decade according to the Pentagon’s ballistic-missile defense review.
On North Korea, the report disclosed for the first time the U.S. intelligence estimate of when Pyongyang will be able to reach the technically challenging threshold of producing a nuclear device small enough to be carried on a missile.
“We must assume that sooner or later, North Korea will have a successful test of its Taepodong-2 and, if there are no major changes in its national security strategy in the next decade, it will be able to mate a nuclear warhead to a proven delivery system,” the report said.
North Korea’s two underground nuclear tests and its development of long-range missiles is a major worry, the report said, noting that Iran also is developing long-range missiles.
Chuck Downs, a former Pentagon official and specialist on North Korea, said the North Korean drive for a long-range nuclear missile is part of Pyongyang’s objective of being able to threaten the United States.
“They are a regime that has already relied on coercive threats, with their own people, with their neighbors and with the United States,” he said.
Developing a nuclear-tipped Taepodong will be “the high point of their military development program,” said Mr. Downs, head of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “It should come as no surprise that they are seeking to develop this missile.”
A defense official said the Defense Intelligence Agency told Congress last year that North Korea may be able to mate a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile, noting that the Taepodong would be nuclear-capable. Additionally, DIA has stated that “North Korea could have several nuclear warheads capable of delivery by ballistic missiles.”
“We have publicly stated that North Korea has a theoretical capability to produce a warhead and mate it with a missile, but we have no information to suggest they have done so,” the official said.
Five years ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then a U.S. senator from New York, made headlines when she asked DIA director Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby during a hearing whether North Korea had a nuclear warhead small enough to be carried on a missile. Adm. Jacoby said yes, but a Pentagon spokesman said later that officials did not know whether Pyongyang has a nuclear missile warhead capability.
The report said it was difficult to predict when the missile threat to the U.S. homeland will evolve, “but it is certain that it will do so.”
Iran, meanwhile, announced Wednesday that it had conducted a rocket launch to place a satellite into orbit, a move that the White House called provocative.
North Korea’s April 2009 Taepodong test failed to orbit a small communications satellites, but showed that Pyongyang has developed “many technologies associated with an [intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)],” the report said.
Current U.S. missile-defense systems include 30 ground-based long-range interceptors in Alaska and California, ground-based mobile Patriot and Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems and the Navy’s SM-3 anti-missile interceptor, based on Aegis warships.
The Obama administration canceled a plan to deploy long-range interceptors in Poland after Russia opposed the interceptor base and a related radar planned for the Czech Republic.
Critics of the scaled-back missile-defense plan say abandoning the proposal for stationing long-range missile interceptors in Europe will increase the U.S. vulnerability to a future Iranian missile strike on the United States.