The United States has long seen North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as a major national security threat. But the missiles Pyongyang would use to deliver a nuclear bomb appear to be a different matter.
A top U.S. general Friday dismissed concerns North Korea’s rapidly developing missile program is capable, for now, of producing anything that could get by U.S. defenses.
“I have 100% confidence,” General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an audience in Washington. “I don’t say 100% confidence often. I have 100% confidence in those capabilities against North Korea.”
'Gift' wasn't given
U.S. military and intelligence officials have been keeping an especially close eye on Pyongyang since late last year, when leader Kim Jong Un threatened to give Washington a “Christmas gift” it might not like.
At the time, U.S. officials expected some sort of weapons test or a test of one of the country’s new long-range ballistic missiles. Only no such test ever materialized. And with negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang seemingly stalled, there are growing concerns a peaceful, diplomatic solution may be drifting out of reach.
Earlier this week, during a news conference at the Pentagon with Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters the next move was “in Kim Jong Un’s hands.”
"We continue to send the message to North Korea that the best path forward is through a diplomatic solution that results in the denuclearization of North Korea," Esper said.
"We monitor very closely what's happening,” Esper added, warning that if necessary, “we remain ready to fight tonight.”
Speaking alongside Esper, Kono voiced hope that dialogue could prevail.
"Hopefully, he will make the right decision for his own people," the Japanese minister said of North Korea’s Kim.
Nearly 70 tests
Even as Pyongyang engaged in talks with the U.S. last year, it launched 13 missile tests, bring the total of tests under Kin Jong Un to almost 70.
"They've changed the entire structure of the world with the 115th most powerful economy," Hyten said Friday at the Center for Strategic International Studies.
“North Korea has been building new missiles, new capabilities, new weapons as fast as anyone on the planet,” he added. “They learned how to go fast."
In contrast to his confidence in defending against North Korean missiles, Hyten warned U.S. systems are not nearly as capable against new and emerging technologies, like hypersonic missiles being developed by Russia and China.
"It doesn't matter what the threat is, if you can't see it, you can't defend against it," the former commander of U.S. Strategic Command warned, calling for space-based sensors while acknowledging their likely hefty price tag.
“I would like to see research and development into low-Earth-orbit as well as medium-Earth-orbit," he said. "That's the only way to get a global [missile defense] capability that is affordable."