North Korea is close to deploying a new road-mobile intercontinental missile that can threaten the United States, the director of national intelligence told Congress on Tuesday.
DNI James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the new weapon was rolled out during a military parade in Pyongyang last April.
“We believe North Korea has already taken initial steps towards fielding this system, although it remains untested,” Clapper said.
The new missile comes amid recent threats by North Korea to launch nuclear missile strikes against the United States.
The comments by Clapper were the first public statement by a senior Obama administration official about a new and threatening road-mobile ICBM that analysts say represents a quantum leap in the North Korean missile threat.
Clapper, in an annual threat assessment briefing, also said North Korea’s long-range Taepodong-2 rocket launched a satellite into orbit in December “thus demonstrating its long-range missile technology.”
“These developments have been accompanied with extremely aggressive public rhetoric toward the United States and the Republic of Korea,” Clapper said.
The disclosure that the Korean missile, dubbed the KN-08 ICBM, is close to deployment follows the Feb. 12 report by the Free Beacon that the Pentagon’s Joint Staff was engaged in an urgent assessment of the new KN-08.
The classified assessment of the threat posed to the United States by the KN-08 was ordered by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, following recent intelligence indicating the North Koreans were moving ahead with the missile.
The expedited assessment is an indication of the level of concern felt within the U.S. intelligence and military communities about the new weapon.
According to defense officials, several KN-08s were observed by intelligence sensors moving around the country in January.
There are concerns that North Korea will sell or share the technology for the mobile missile with other states, such as Iran.
Iran’s Shahab-3 medium-range missile was based on North Korea’s Nodong.
A test of the KN-08 was expected after North Korea’s recent nuclear test but so far has not been carried out. There are also intelligence indicators showing North Korea may be preparing for a test of a new medium-range missile called the Musudan.
A U.S. official said North Korean missile sites are being closely monitored.
The road-mobile KN-08 is more of a threat than the Taepodong-2 because the missiles can be moved around covertly and are much more difficult to detect and target than the static-launched Taepodong-2.
The missiles can be hidden in buildings or caves and launched with little or no warning.
North Korea recently has stepped up harsh rhetoric and threats against the United States in response to the start of annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises called Key Resolve.
South Korean forces are currently on a heightened state of alert amid the North Korean threats. Officials said the concerns are that North Korea’s military could take some provocative military action, such as a ship attack or artillery firing, but not until after the current U.S.-South Korean exercises end on March 21.
Last week North Korean Col. Gen. Kang Pyo-yong was quoted in the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper as saying North Korea’s military is set to launch attacks on the South.
“Our intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and other missiles are on standby position mounted with various nuclear warheads that have been developed lighter and smaller," Kang said during a rally in Pyongyang on March 7.
North Korea has threatened to launch a nuclear strike on the United States.
Clapper, in his testimony, said intelligence analysts continue to assess that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are designed for deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy. But, he added, “We do not know Pyongyang’s nuclear doctrine or employment concepts”—that is, how nuclear weapons would be used in a war.
“Although we assess with low confidence that the North would only attempt to use nuclear weapons against U.S. forces or allies to preserve the Kim regime, we do not know what would constitute, from the North's perspective, crossing that threshold,” Clapper said.
Harsh North Korean rhetoric in recent days appeared designed to persuade Washington and Seoul to cancel the annual Key Resolve military maneuvers, an effort that failed when the war games began March 11. They will end March 21.
More than 13,000 troops are taking part in the exercises, which will simulate the rapid reinforcement of troops to Korea during a conflict.
Following Key Resolve, another major military exercise will be held with 11,000 U.S. and South Korean troops. Those maneuvers, known as Exercise Foal Eagle, will continue through April 30.
South Korea’s Joog Ang Ilbo newspaper reported that after the exercises, U.S. Navy ships carrying tactical nuclear weapons will remain stationed in South Korea to bolster U.S. deterrent forces against any North Korean nuclear strike.
“If North Korea makes a nuclear attack, retaliation can come from U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in Okinawa or Guam,” a South Korean government official told the newspaper. “But considering the time that might take, we need to have a nuclear weapon near the Korean Peninsula.”
Another South Korean newspaper that has ties to defectors and sources inside North Korea reported on Wednesday that Pyongyang plans to raise domestic tensions inside the country by declaring that the country is moving to a partial state of war in the next few days.
The Daily NK quoted a source inside North Korea as saying “Before the [ROK-U.S. ‘Key Resolve-Foal Eagle’] military exercises started on the 11th, orders were handed down telling us to raise the readiness posture one step from ‘combat mobilization.’”
The source added “there will be high level drills for a week, including not just underground training but also some combined drills involving simulated enemy action.”
Additionally, the North Korean source stated that military cadres said that in the next few days an important announcement is expected on the near state of war.
“There have been orders to distribute all reserve supplies to the people,” the source said. “The emergency supplies stored in the No. 2 Depot have been sent out to public distribution locations. They are just waiting for the order to distribute it.”
The last time North Korea went to the near state of war was 1993 when Pyongyang withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty after its nuclear weapons plans were exposed.