Top U.S. military officials believe North Korea is now capable of launching a nuclear-armed missile at the United States.
“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, commander of the U.S. Northern Command, told reporters Tuesday during a Pentagon briefing. "We assess that it’s operational today, and so we practice to go against it.”
Gortney cautioned that U.S. officials have yet to see Pyongyang test the KN-08, which so far has been displayed only during military parades. But he called the U.S. assessment a “prudent decision.”
The "mobile nature" of the KN-08 has left U.S. officials concerned about losing "our ability to get the indications that something might occur,” Gortney said. Still, he said he had “high confidence” that U.S. missile systems would be capable of defending the country from a potential North Korean strike.
This is not the first time U.S. officials have warned of the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
In a written statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, National Intelligence Director James Clapper warned that Pyongyang had taken “initial steps” toward fielding the KN-08.
As far back as October 2014, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, General Curtis Scaparrotti, was cautious in downplaying North Korean claims that it could deliver a nuclear warhead.
“They've had the right connections, and so I believe [they] have the capability to have miniaturized a device at this point,” Scaparrotti said. “They have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have.”
A report issued Tuesday by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said Pyongyang has about 1,000 ballistic missiles capable of reaching South Korea and Japan. But it also said North Korea faces “significant problems” with its longer-range missiles.
The report’s authors concluded North Korea would need help from foreign technology to be able to hit the U.S. accurately.