WASHINGTON — US intelligence believes North Korea is capable of miniaturizing a nuclear weapon and putting it on its KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile, the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said Tuesday.
It has been widely assumed that North Korea would look to develop the technology to place a nuclear warhead on top of the KN-08, a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile. But the statement by Adm. Bill Gortney is further confirmation that the US believes the Kim regime has that capability at hand.
"Our assessment is that they have the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the homeland," Gortney told reporters during a Pentagon briefing. "That is the way we think, and that's our assessment of the process.
"We haven't seen them test the KN-08 yet and we're waiting for them to do that, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they will fly it before they test it," he added.
Even without seeing a test of a nuclear-capable KN-08, Gortney called it "prudent" to plan for the threat.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, pointed out that there have been previous assessments, both from the US and South Korea, that the Kim regime could equip a KN-08 with a nuclear weapon. The challenge, he said, is getting that payload to be effective.
"It's not that hard to shrink it down, but what happens is you start to encounter reliability problems, especially if it's got a ride on an ICBM," Lewis said.
Given that there are doubts in many sectors about whether a KN-08 could ever deliver a nuclear payload, Lewis said different parts of the national security apparatus have handled it differently. The Pentagon, he said, errs on the side of caution when discussing and planning for the threat.
"I think they are getting the underlying intelligence assessments, which say they can make it small enough to fit on the missile," Lewis said. "Then they have to go out and fend for themselves in public, and what else can they say? They can't say North Korea can't do this, because that's not what the assessment says. So it wouldn't surprise me they say they have to assume it works."
Certainly, the idea that North Korea would want to develop a nuclear weapon capable of going on an ICBM is not a shock. Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, said there is plenty of evidence the Kim regime is looking to build that capacity.
"Based on its nuclear and ballistic missile testing activities and other evidence, North Korea does appear to be trying to develop long-range missiles armed with nuclear weapons," he said.
Gortney's comments come as Secretary of Defense Ash Carter begins his first trip to Asia since he took office in February. Carter is spending two days in Japan before moving on to Seoul for talks with South Korean officials.
Those talks, Carter said in a Monday speech, will "reinforce deterrence and improve capabilities on the peninsula to counteract an increasingly dangerous and provocative North Korea."
The proliferation of mobile ICBMs is an issue for missile defense systems as a whole, and Gortney acknowledged the cost curve for missile defense needs to drop for the future.
To help drive prices down and keep up with current threats, Gortney would prefer to see the money Congress wants to spend on an East Coast missile defense network instead be reinvested into new technology development.
"If I had one more dollar to do ballistic missile defense, I wouldn't put it against the East Coast missile site," he said. "I'd put it against those technologies that would allow us to get to the correct side of the cost curve in ballistic missile defense."
"It is a proliferating threat. It is growing. Countries are developing those capabilities, they can threaten their neighbors with power projection with that, and our current approach has us on the wrong side of the cost curve," he continued. "So I would take those dollars and invest it in those necessary technologies."