The commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific said this week that North Korea’s KN-08 missile — a new road-mobile, intercontinental-range weapon — is a serious threat with the potential to hit the United States with a nuclear warhead.
The comments by Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear to foreign reporters on Tuesday were made as a report provided new details on the six KN-08 missiles — initially thought in 2012 to be mock-ups — that now appear to be hard-to-locate and easy-to-fire mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
“From a military planning perspective, when I see KN-08 road-mobile missiles that appear in a North Korean military parade, I am bound to take that serious, both for not only the peninsula, but also the region, as well as my own homeland, should we speculate that those missiles potentially have the technology to reach out,” Adm. Locklear said.
North Korea wants the United States to believe it has strategic missiles, and the strategic threat cannot be ignored, he said.
The regime in Pyongyang has conducted three underground nuclear tests and several long-range missile tests. But U.S. intelligence has not confirmed that North Korea is able to miniaturize a nuclear device that can be fired atop long-range missiles. North Korea is believed to have small warhead designs that were purchased in the mid-2000s through the covert Pakistani nuclear suppliers group headed by A.Q. Khan.
“Whether [the mobile missiles] are real or not, or whether they have that capability or not, the North Korea regime wants us to think they do, and so we plan for that,” the four-star admiral said.
U.S. military forces have robust missile defenses aboard Aegis-equipped warships in the region and long-range interceptors in Alaska and California. The military also is cooperating with Japan to develop regional defenses against North Korean missiles.
Adm. Locklear said military plans to defend against KN-08 attacks targeting the U.S. homeland is “my No. 1 job.” Defending allies in the region is the next priority.
“And we are committed to have the assets available to do that in a way that protects peace and prosperity in the region and our own people,” he said during an appearance at the Foreign Press Center in Washington.
The KN-08 was unveiled during a military parade in Pyongyang last year, carried atop a Chinese-made transporter-erector launcher.
U.S. officials said the launchers were exported illegally by Beijing and the transfer represents a militarily significant violation of U.N. sanctions against North Korea. China has told the United Nations that it exported the launchers as lumber haulers and did not know they would be converted to missile launchers.
North Korea so far has not conducted a test launch of a KN-08, making the missile’s operational status uncertain.
However, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff concluded earlier this year in a classified assessment that the KN-08 poses a direct threat to the United States and that it has the capability of reaching the western part of the country with a nuclear payload.
Meanwhile, a North Korea-focused think tank this week reported that recent images of the KN-08s bolster arguments that the weapons are missile systems and not mock-ups, as initially assessed by some private analysts.
The publication 38 North, produced by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, reported that new images of the six known KN-08s indicate the missiles show they are not mock-ups.