North Korea has tailored its spate of ballistic missile tests to defeat the U.S.-stationed defense systems ready to protect the South and Japan from descending warheads, a report to Congress says.
The bellicose North regularly flight-tests a panoply of ballistic missiles that could, in war, be capped with miniaturized nuclear warheads and strike its two democratic neighbors and U.S. allies.
The U.S. military has matched this threat by first stationing Patriot anti-missile batteries and then announcing that the wider-range, mobile THAAD system is now in place to shoot down incoming warheads.
Pyongyang, the North’s capital, has been watching.
The Congressional Research Service reported that the regime launched test missiles last year in flights precisely designed to avoid interception by rocketing them into much higher altitudes. The result: The re-entry warhead will descend at a steeper angle and faster speed, “making it potentially more difficult to intercept with a missile defense system,” the CRS said.
In another maneuver, the CRS said, “North Korea has also demonstrated an ability to launch a salvo attack with more than one missile launched in relatively short order.”
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“This is consistent with a possible goal of being able to conduct large ballistic missile attacks with large raid sizes, a capability that could make it more challenging for a missile defense system to destroy each incoming warhead,” the report said.
In a third tactic, North Korea has tested submarine-launched ballistic missiles — the first in 2015 — that could be targeted at South Korea from outside THAAD’s radar field.
Lockheed Martin, the maker of THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense), says its system is “designed to counter mass raids” by launching up to 72 interceptors from one battery against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles to protect troops as well as cities. The U.S. military positioned the battery and radars 135 miles south of the capital of Seoul on an abandoned golf course.
The CRS says the North’s periodic test launches are not just for show. They “may be intended to increase the reliability, effectiveness and survivability of their ballistic missile force,” said analysts Steven A. Hildreth and Mary Beth D. Nikitin.
The country’s last two missile tests, including one on Saturday, failed. That prompted speculation that a Pentagon cyberwar on North Korea quickly disrupted the flight.
North Korea has made significant advances in producing fissile material — weapons-grade plutonium and enriched uranium. It has conducted underground explosive tests to refine warhead designs and yields, and is building families of reliable ballistic missiles.
The Institute for Science and International Security, led by nuclear physicist David Albright, estimates that the North may own 30 nuclear weapons today and will have 60 by 2020. The Defense Intelligence Agency said North Korea owned just one or two such weapons in 1999.
In other words, North Korea, with erratic leader Kim Jong-un, is becoming a nuclear power.
“The last several years have witnessed a dramatic and overt buildup in North Korean’s nuclear capabilities,” Mr. Albright said in a briefing.
The Trump administration has been sending a combination of signals to Mr. Kim — an iron fist in the buildup of naval forces and an olive branch in President Trump’s remark that he would be honored to meet the Stalinist-type leader if conditions are met.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the North must commit to dismantling its nuclear arsenal. It made such a commitment to freeze its weapons research under the Agreed Framework with the Clinton administration.
During six-party negotiations, the George W. Bush administration found the regime to be cheating. All international inspections stopped in 2009.
Mr. Albright told The Washington Times that the North accelerated its nuclear weapons development at the end of each agreement, especially since 2009.
The North also has made threats about testing a long-range ballistic missile capable of hitting the continental United States. Such a provocation could prompt Mr. Trump’s national security team of former and current generals to recommend a pre-emptive airstrike to destroy Mr. Kim’s nuclear arsenal.
The CRS report said: “The intelligence community believes that North Korea has an ICBM capability, but that it has not been tested and that neither North Korea nor the United States knows whether that capability will work.”
The problem air war planners would face is that North Korea is suspected of operating secret, underground sites where fissile material is stored and where warheads are researched, developed and assembled, nuclear analysts say.
“North Korea’s numbers of weapons, based on fissile material estimates, are relatively large and growing,” Mr. Albright said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, filed its latest report on North Korea in August. It noted that the North’s test of a nuclear device the previous January was a “flagrant disregard” of U.N. resolutions. The report said the IAEA’s knowledge is waning as the Kim regime keeps its experts outside the country.
The CRS report sums up the North’s fast progress: “Taken together, North Korea’s progress in nuclear testing, its declared standardization of warhead designs and potential to put those warheads on medium-range missiles, increased confidence in the reliability of its short-range missile forces, and efforts seemingly designed to degrade regional ballistic missile defense systems suggest that North Korea may be building a credible regional nuclear warfighting capability. Such an approach would reinforce their deterrent strategy by lending more credibility to its growing capabilities.”