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US Cites Growing N. Korea Long-Range Missile Threat

FILE - A South Korean man watches a TV news program showing the file footage of the missile launch conducted by North Korea, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, March 13, 2015.

President Obama’s National Intelligence Director recently told the U.S. Congress that North Korea has made advancements toward developing a long-range ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. At the same time, a possible deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea is being debated, but for officials in Seoul, these two issues are not necessarily related.

In written testimony to Congress, James Clapper, the U.S. National Intelligence Director, last week said that North Korea has taken steps to deploy a long range, inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) called the KN-08 that will be capable of reaching the U.S.

Around the same time David Stilwell, the Pentagon’s deputy director for Politico-Military Affairs for Asia, said the North Korean missile threat has created a “demand” for the THAAD missile defense system on the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul worries about short-range missiles

While North Korea’s growing long-range missile threat and South Korea’s missile defense needs may be overlapping U.S. security concerns, they are separate issues to Seoul.

Shin In-kyun, a security analyst with the Korea Defense Network said South Korea's concerns are short-range threats, not ICBMs.

He said ICBMs cannot attack South Korea due to their maximum firing range. So he thinks Clapper’s comments on ICBMs were made to express pre-emptive warning or worries about a possible cut in the defense budget, rather than the deployment of THAAD in South Korea.

The THAAD missile defense system, which is equipped with radar capable of tracking objects 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away, is designed to intercept ballistic missiles at high altitude.

China and Russia oppose its deployment in Korea because THAAD could possibly be used to intercept their missiles and would enhance U.S. military capabilities in the region.

Officials in Seoul have so far avoided taking a stand on THAAD. When asked, they repeat the “three nos”: no official request has come from Washington, no official consultations have been conducted and no decision has yet been made on whether to station a THAAD battery on the Korean Peninsula.

Long-range missile threat

As for North Korea’s long-range missile threat, Pyongyang has yet to test fire the KN-08, a step that is considered essential to its eventual development and deployment.

Analysts associated with the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Affairs say there is satellite imagery that shows rocket engine testing and construction underway at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in North Korea that supports Clapper’s assertion. They say the worst case scenario is that North Korea will deploy a functioning ICBM missile within the next three to five years, but ongoing sanctions and technical constraints could impede the development timeline by years or even decades.

Shin In-kyun said North Korea must complete a number of tests before it can enter the ICBM deployment stage.

He said that in order to be recognized as a weapon, a missile must pass at least ten firing tests and score 70 percent, or succeed about 7 times in the firing tests.

Because the KN-08 has not been tested, he estimates it will take several more years for North Korea to build a working ICBM.

It is also not known how close North Korea is to developing a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be used on a ballistic missile. Last year General Curtis Scaparrotti, the Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said he believed North Korea has the expertise and capability to build a miniaturized nuclear device, and the South Korean Minister of Defense Han Min-koo also said Pyongyang has made progress in its miniaturization technology.

VOA Seoul Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.