North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said that his country is preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile that would be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and hitting North America.
“Research and development of the cutting-edge tech weapons are actively progressing and strengthening our defense capabilities, including last stage preparation of tests for Intercontinental Ballistic rocket launch have been continuously succeeding,” Kim said in a televised address on New Years Day.
The speech was full of the North’s usual self-congratulatory, lofty proclamations and anti-Western rhetoric.
Kim referred to North Korea as a “nuclear and military power in the east that formidable enemy dare encroach on” and said “unless the US and its vassal forces stop nuclear threat and blackmail and unless they stop the war exercises which they stage right at our noses under the pretext of annual exercises, the DPRK would keep increasing the military capabilities for self-defense and preemptive striking capacity with a main emphasis on nuclear force,” according to state news agency KCNA.
But there’s reason to take Kim’s threats more seriously than those in years past.
In 2016 North Korea backed up its fiery rhetoric with two nuclear tests — the country had only conducted three before — and a handful of land and sea-based missile tests.
“Combining nuclear warheads with ballistic missile technology in the hands of a volatile leader like Kim Jong Un is a recipe for disaster,” Adm. Harry Harris, the head of the US military’s Pacific Command, said in a December speech.
Despite Pyongyang’s apparent progress on a warhead, it doesn’t have good enough missile and rocket technology to deliver a nuke — at least not yet, says Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation think tank.
But Kim is determined to develop nuclear weapons by the end of 2017 “at all costs,” according to a high-profile North Korean who defected.
“Following the ruling party congress in May, Kim Jong-un made it a party policy to finish nuclear development within the earliest time possible,” Thae Yong-ho, formerly No. 2 at the North Korean Embassy in London, said in a news briefing, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
This is exactly what American policy makers have feared for 30 years: North Korea developing the capability of hitting the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. Marrying a nuclear warhead with an ICBM and putting it in the hands of a paranoid, unstable leader like Kim is the stuff of nightmares.
It isn’t that there haven’t been opportunities to destroy the North’s nuclear capability. But as with the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program, policymakers and politicians held their fire largely because they feared the unanticipated consequences of a strike.
In the case of North Korea, any attack on their nuclear infrastructure could have precipitated retaliation against South Korea which could have resulted in a devastating war. So the U.S. and the West played the sanctions game, which ended as it usually does — in embarrassing futility.
Three presidents watched as the North gradually built its nuclear program until it was able to construct a weapon and was on the verge of developing the technology to deliver it. Now, with Kim on the verge of possessing the ultimate weapons system to attack his most hated enemy, it will be up to Donald Trump to find a way to deal with this threat.