Reports say North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un appears to be continuing a purge of senior officials that he deems disloyal, threatening the stability of his regime and raising substantial security concerns for the United States.
Choe Ryong Hae, a top ambassador for North Korea and member of a prominent military family, did not attend a funeral this week for a senior military official, the Wall Street Journal reported. Most other political and military leaders in the Kim regime made an appearance, suggesting that Choe might have been reprimanded and forced to attend ideological training.
If Choe has been blacklisted, he could face a threat against his life. Kim is reported to have executed about 70 officials since taking power in 2011 as part of an effort to eliminate potential rivals. In 2013, reports indicated that Kim had executed Jang Song-thaek, his uncle and second-in-command.
While it is notoriously difficult to verify reports from the hermetic state, U.S. officials and analysts say a purge by Kim could always incite a backlash from within his regime. Kim has intensified his threats against the United States and U.S. regional allies as well as deployed more missiles and nuclear weapons in another attempt to demonstrate his authority.
In its 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength, the Heritage Foundation determined that North Korea poses a "severe" threat to vital U.S. interests, the highest level in the think tank’s rankings. The Kim regime "possesses nuclear weapons capable of reaching U.S. facilities and America’s critical security and economic partners in the region," the report said.
Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Northern Command and the top military official responsible for defending the United States from long-range missile attacks, said last month that North Korea has the capability to strike the United States with a long-range nuclear missile. The Kim regime has been developing a road-mobile ICBM known as the KN-08.
"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," Gortney said at an Atlantic Council event. "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."
The North Korean military has also been deploying its ballistic missile arsenal, the Heritage index said.
"Pyongyang has deployed approximately 800 Scud short-range tactical ballistic missiles, 300 No-dong medium-range missiles, and 50 Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles," the report said. "The Scud missiles threaten South Korea, the No-dong can target all of Japan, and the Musudan can hit U.S. bases on Okinawa and Guam. Pyongyang continues its development of the Taepo-dong series of ICBMs, at least some of which have a range sufficient to hit parts of the U.S."
While assessments differ on how close North Korea is to miniaturizing nuclear weapons and mounting them on missiles, experts say the regime’s nuclear arsenal is expanding. Pyongyang could have 20 nuclear weapons by next year and as many as 100 by 2020. The Kim regime produces nukes for "deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy," according to U.S. government assessments cited by Heritage.
North Korea announced in September that it had resumed operations at its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, raising further concerns about its nuclear threat.
Additionally, Pyongyang is believed to have perpetrated the massive cyber attack against Sony last year.
"Contrary to the perception that North Korea is a technologically backward nation, the regime has an active cyber warfare capability," the Heritage report said. "In 2009, North Korea declared that it was ‘fully ready for any form of high-tech war.’"