North Korea’s moratorium on missile test flights has precluded it from trying out the technology it would need to strike the U.S. with a nuclear-tipped ICBM, a top U.S. military officer said Friday.
While North Korea has demonstrated that it has nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, it hasn’t shown that it has mastered the complicated steps of delivering a warhead to the U.S. mainland, said Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
To do that, Pyongyang needs to develop and test a reliable targeting system and a survivable re-entry vehicle, the portion of a missile that contains a nuclear warhead and which is designed to withstand the stress of re-entering the atmosphere.
“Our assessment is he has not closed those last two pieces of the kill chain,” Gen. Selva told the Air Force Association, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
U.S. and North Korean talks on eliminating North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have been stymied, and Pyongyang has continued to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
But Gen. Selva’s comments underscore that some of the gestures North Korea has made—specifically, suspending nuclear and missile tests—have security benefits for the U.S.
“We have not seen a demonstration of a reliable R.V.,” said Gen. Selva, referring to the re-entry vehicle. “And we have not seen a demonstration of a reliable arming, targeting and fusing system that would allow the system to survive and actually detonate when he wants it to detonate.”
North Korea last year test fired intercontinental ballistic missiles that have the range to reach the U.S. But in carrying out those launches, it fired the missiles on “lofted” trajectories, in which they reached a high altitude but didn’t cover a great distance horizontally.
As a consequence, those test flights didn’t replicate the flight path a missile would take if it was fired at the U.S. On such a trajectory, a re-entry vehicle would go faster and would be subject to higher temperatures, experts say.
North Korea also hasn’t conducted a missile test flight since November.
“It has had an impact,” Gen. Selva said of the moratorium. “But we don’t know what impact it’s had on his logic,” he added, referring to Mr. Kim.
Even though North Korea hasn’t fully developed its ICBM capabilities, Gen. Selva said, it may think the system is good enough and try to use it in a crisis. So the Pentagon’s missile defense system needs to be prepared to intercept it, he said.
“We have to assume he might shoot one,” Gen. Selva said. “We would have to be prepared to defend. But we might actually make the choice not to shoot because we assert based on what we know about the system and its trajectory that it’s not going to hit anything.”
Joseph Bermudez, a military analyst for 38 North, a website on North Korean affairs, said that Pyongyang has already reaped political gains from its ICBM program despite its limitations.
“North Korea’s ballistic missile program has already enabled it to achieve its strategic goal of being perceived as an existential threat to the U.S.,” he said. “North Korea is at the center of the international stage.”
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