North Korea is capable of hitting the United States with a long-range nuclear missile, the commander of the U.S. Northern Command said last week.
"I agree with the intel community that we assess that they have the ability, they have the weapons, and they have the ability to miniaturize those weapons, and they have the ability to put them on a rocket that can range the homelands," said Adm. William Gortney, the Northcom commander who is also in charge of defending the United States from long-range missile attack.
"And as the defender of North America, the United States officially, in the ballistic missile defense, I think the American people expect me to take the threat seriously," he said Wednesday at the Atlantic Council.
The comments by Gortney were made days before North Korea held a military parade in Pyongyang marking the anniversary of the founding of the ruling communist Worker’s Party of Korea. Military analysts say the parade showcased a new variant of a long-range road-mobile missile built with Chinese assistance.
The parade showed what state-run North Korean media claimed was a variant of the KN-08 road-mobile missile, first shown several years ago in another military parade. The missile was shown carried on a Chinese-made transporter erector launcher.
"With the vengeful desire to turn the citadel of our enemies into a sea of fire, our powerful tactical rockets loaded with diversified and miniaturized nuclear warheads are on the move," a North Korean commentator said during the parade as several columns of the mobile missiles were shown on television.
Mobile missiles are considered a greater strategic threat than silo-based missiles because they are more difficult to track and can be set up and launched with little or no warning.
The celebration Saturday included a rare public address by Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, who stated in a speech that his military forces were capable of "fighting any kind of war provoked by the U.S. and we are ready to protect our people and the blue sky of our motherland."
North Korea was widely believed by U.S., South Korean, and Japanese intelligence agencies to be preparing a long-range missile test that was to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party. As of Sunday, no missile test had been carried out.
Gortney warned that U.S. forces are ready to respond to any North Korean missile launch.
The Pentagon operates a network of missile defenses that include Navy Aegis destroyers in waters near the Korean peninsula and long-range range anti-missile interceptors deployed in California and Alaska. Radar and satellite sensors also are part of the national missile defense.
Asked about the possible missile test, Gortney said: "So I just don’t know, but we’re ready for him and we’re ready 24 hours a day should he be dumb enough to shoot something."
Earlier North Korean long-range missile launches several years ago increased instability in the region and prompted United Nations sanctions.
Rick Fisher, a military analyst, said that photo analysis of the missile indicates it is a new version of the KN-08.
"This version of the KN-08 has a much more credible design for the purpose of delivering nuclear warheads to American cities," Fisher said.
"Instead of having a smaller diameter third stage compared to the first two stages, as seen in the earlier 2012 missile, the Oct. 10 version shows all stages having uniform diameter."
Northcom’s Gortney said that there are important unanswered questions about North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, including when he will use his nuclear forces and for what reasons.
"Those are all questions that no one really understands because no one really understands the ‘great leader,’" he said, referring to the North Korean dictator.
Gortney said he "looks longingly" back to the time of Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, who, while threatening, was more predictable than the younger Kim.
Kim Jong Un, only 32 years old, is both young and inexperienced but has been ruthlessly consolidating power by purging potential rivals since taking control in 2012
Asked about Kim, Gortney said the North Korean leader is solidifying his power base within a closed leadership circle that is dominated by Kim family members, Workers’ party leaders, and military commanders.
Gortney noted that Kim has used unusually brutal means to execute his rivals, including his uncle Jang Sang Taek, who in December 2013 was executed by large caliber anti-aircraft guns after being charged with seeking to usurp power.
Kim’s "form of non-judicial punishment is pretty interesting—shooting people with anti-aircraft guns," Gortney said, adding that Kim is "just not predictable."
"We can live with some pretty ugly opponents as long as they’re predictable," he said. "This guy I just can’t predict. … It’s just a very, very unpredictable and unstable situation over there."
Gortney emphasized that as Northcom commander he is responsible for dealing with the missile threat from North Korea, while the Pacific Command commander, Adm. Harry Harris, must deal with the dangers to U.S. and allies forces in the region.
North Korea has one of the largest militaries in the world with more than 9 million active duty, reserve, and paramilitary forces.
While equipped with outdated arms, the North Koreans still pose a major threat to regional stability, frequently engaging in provocations like the 2010 sinking of the South Korean ship Choenan and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong, a South Korean border island. Earlier this year, North Korea was blamed for planting mines on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone that severely injured two South Korean soldiers.
Harris told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month that "North Korea is the greatest threat that I face in the Pacific as the Pacific Command commander."
"I think that you have a leader in North Korea who has nuclear weapons and is seeking the means to militarize them and deliver them intercontinentally, and that causes me great concern," Harris said.
Conventional North Korean forces include 20,000 to 30,000 artillery pieces within range of Seoul, the South Korean capital, as well as some 100,000 rockets within range of 28,000 American troops and their families along with another 700,000 American citizens who live in South Korea. "So I view the threat from North Korea very seriously," Harris said.
As China’s influence in moderating provocative North Korean behavior has waned under Kim Jong Un, the United States has chosen as policy of diplomacy and pressure, according to Pentagon officials.
However, Fisher, a senior research fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the latest KN-08 variant highlights the failure of the Obama administration to reign in China’s sharing of military technology with North Korea.
The KN-08 is "continues to use the Chinese-made China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp Sanjiang-built transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) that continues to raise questions regarding the extent of Chinese assistance to North Korea's ICBM," Fisher said.
"One of the Obama administration’s key failures of resolve was its failure in 2012 to sanction Beijing over its sale to North Korea of the large sophisticated 16-wheel trucks that now carry North Korea's nuclear ICBMs aimed at the United States," he said.
China claimed the missile launcher vehicles were exported as lumber carriers, even though analysts say the transporters are too wide for most North Korean logging roads.
Fisher estimates the KN-08 could have a greater range than the first variant, which is estimated to be able to reach between 3,400 and 3,700 miles.
"The warhead has four thrusters to enable separation from the third stage," Fisher said. "If separation occurred later in the flight, this could complicate interception by presenting U.S. radar with two large targets."
The blunt shape of the warheads on the missile appear similar to early generation nuclear warheads that are not considered to have high accuracy but would be capable of hitting a city.
Fisher also noted that it is possible the new missile is a mock-up for the parade and not the actual missile.
"But three years after these Chinese TELs appeared, and now with their third appearance in a North Korean military parade, the administration has yet to provide a substantive public explanation to the American people about China's assistance for North Korean ICBMs that can now devastate American cities," Fisher said.