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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
North Korea’s “increasingly sophisticated” nuclear weapons and missile programs threaten the United States and its allies, the U.S. Department of Defense said in a new report published on Monday outlining Washington’s “rationale” for possessing its own nuclear arsenal.
The statement comes after the DPRK conducted four rounds of missile tests in March — its most ever in a one-month span — and also follows Secretary of State Pompeo’s recent call for the world to “remain united” in enforcing sanctions against the North, as punishment for its various weapons programs.
The nuclear issue is one of the biggest areas of disagreement in the icy relationship between the two countries, and the Defense Department’s report is the latest sign that Washington’s stance — that the weapons are dangerous and should not exist — remains wholly unchanged.
“Rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran are destabilizing regions through their pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs,” the report said.
“North Korea continues its illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities in direct violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions,” it continued.
“It has conducted increasingly sophisticated nuclear and ICBM flight tests, which pose a threat to the U.S. homeland and our allies.”
North Korea last conducted a nuclear test in 2017, but U.S. officials have said that the North’s nuclear weapons program did not stop after that, despite a vague denuclearization pledge that President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un signed when they met for the first time, at their Singapore summit in 2018.
When Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, appeared before Congress last November, he said there was “no evidence” that the North had ended its production of nuclear materials. Biegun is also the deputy secretary of state.
Last month, General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, told Congress in written testimony that the DPRK may be preparing an “even more capable” intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) design — one “that could enhance Kim’s ability to threaten our homeland during a crisis or conflict,” he said.
An ICBM can travel thousands of miles.
“In the last year, North Korea has tested several new short-range missile systems, demonstrating advancing technologies that could eventually be incorporated into its strategic systems,” O’Shaughnessy wrote.
And amid the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea has not slowed down its weapons programs either, according to recent testimony from another senior American military commander.
Pyongyang’s own rhetoric seems to support those statements as well.
At the end of last year, in a speech to senior Workers’ Party leaders, DPRK leader Kim Jong Un said his country would not give up its nuclear weapons if the U.S. didn’t back off and stop threatening the North first, according to North Korean state media.
“If the U.S. persists in its hostile policy towards the DPRK, there will never be the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula,” he said, “and the DPRK will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK and lasting and durable peace-keeping mechanism is built.”
“Hostile policy” is a catch-all term that the North uses to describe American policies and actions it opposes.
In the same speech, Kim also warned of a “new strategic weapon,” though it is still unclear what, exactly, that means.
Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told NK News that the Defense Department’s new report is a “reflection of reality,” adding that it pushes back against skeptics who might question whether North Korea’s ICBMs can actually hit the U.S. homeland.
“But we want to be careful that we don’t hype the threat to justify something crazy,” he said.
Alexandra Bell, a former senior advisor in the State Department’s Office of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, added that it’s one thing for the Pentagon to state a fact about the DPRK’s weapons capabilities, as it did in this report — but another entirely to figure out what to do about it.
“It is not news to anyone that North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons and missile capabilities or that Iran continues to improve its ballistic missile technologies,” said Bell, the senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation in Washington. “What no one seems to know is how the Administration plans to actually reduce these threats.”
Trump, she added, has “completely failed to get anything close to a lasting, substantive deal out of the North Koreans.”
“Now we seem to be on a road to confrontation with Pyongyang,” she told NK News. “Perhaps the Pentagon did not realize that inadvertently illustrating the shortcomings of the Administration would not aid in justifying an already questionable budget request.”
According to the report, the Defense Department is requesting $28.9 billion dollars from Congress for maintenance and “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal next year.
North Korea's "increasingly sophisticated" nuclear weapons and missile programs threaten the United States and its allies, the U.S. Department of Defense said in a new report published on Monday outlining Washington's "rationale" for possessing its own nuclear arsenal.
The statement comes after the DPRK conducted four rounds of missile tests in March -- its most ever in a one-month span -- and also follows Secretary of State Pompeo's recent call for the world to "remain united" in enforcing sanctions against the North, as punishment for its various weapons programs.