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North Korean ICBM Technology Still Falls Short, Top General Says

While North Korea is maintaining its torrid pace of weapons tests, there are at least three key hurdles Kim Jong Un’s regime still needs to overcome before it can field a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of threatening the U.S. mainland.

The threat from Pyongyang is growing, but it isn’t yet imminent, according to General Paul Selva, the No. 2 U.S. military official. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered his thoughts in a statement to Bloomberg before North Korea launched an intermediate-range missile early Tuesday local time over Japan.

“It is clear North Korea has the capability to build a missile that can range the distance to the United States, but North Korea has yet to demonstrate it has the requisite technology and capability to actually target and strike the United States with a nuclear weapon,” Selva said in his statement.

First, North Korea would have to deploy a guidance and stability control system that could direct a long-range missile thousands of kilometers accurately without breaking apart, Selva said. Second, it needs a reentry vehicle housing the warhead that can survive the heat and stresses of an intercontinental ballistic launch. Third, it needs a nuclear weapon “that is small enough and stable enough to survive the trip,” he said.

Read a QuickTake Q&A on what U.S.-North Korea hostilities might look like

“We don’t know how fast Kim Jong Un can accelerate the development of those technologies, but we’re certainly paying attention to determine what tools we have to either deter or slow his advance,” Selva said, echoing comments he made on Capitol Hill earlier this month.

Improvements in North Korea’s missile program following an unprecedented pace of launches this year — more than 20 since January — fueled tensions with the U.S. that peaked when Kim’s regime said it might direct missiles toward the waters around Guam. That prompted President Donald Trump to warn of “fire and fury” from the skies if Pyongyang went forward with its plans.

“Recent North Korean tests of missiles capable of reaching intercontinental range clearly demonstrate progress in and continued commitment to their ICBM program,” James Kudla, a Defense Intelligence Agency spokesman, said via email Wednesday. “If left on its current trajectory, the North Korean regime will ultimately succeed in fielding a nuclear armed missile capable of threatening the U.S. homeland.”

Relations between the U.S. and North Korea briefly eased after Trump’s “fire and fury” comment. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that despite North Korea’s “provocative” firing of three short-range missiles last week, the U.S. will continue to push for negotiations to de-escalate nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Mixed Signals

But the Trump administration delivered mixed signals in the following days, with the president dismissing the idea of negotiating with Kim’s regime and his defense chief saying the U.S. hasn’t yet exhausted its diplomatic options.

There’s no suggestion in Selva’s remarks that the technology gap facing North Korea is beyond reach given the country’s recent improvements in rocket technology. But several outside analysts agreed with his assessment about the barriers that remain.

“I believe that it will take Pyongyang several more years to seriously threaten the U.S. with nuclear-tipped missiles,” said Siegfried Hecker, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory director and nuclear expert who’s visited North Korea seven times.

“Testing a missile booster and a reentry vehicle is a long way from having an actual operational missile,” Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote Aug. 15.

Re-Entry Stress

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