A U.S. defense official has warned that North Korea is still advancing its intercontinental ballistic missile program (ICBM) despite a moratorium on test launches, amid speculation Pyongyang is preparing to unveil a new weapon at a major military parade next month.
Rob Soofer, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, said during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies webinar Wednesday that Pyongyang is still trying to expand its ICBM reach, possibly including submarine-launched weapons.
“We don’t know what the risk is because we know that North Korea is trying to increase the size of its ICBM capabilities, maybe even move to a submarine-launched ballistic missile, but we don’t know the extent of that,” Soofer explained.
The North has not tested any nuclear warheads or ICBMs since late 2017, amid a surprise detente between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington. Historic summits between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump followed, though grand goals of denuclearization and sanctions relief have so far proved too ambitious.
With talks stalled and relations once again deteriorating, the North has returned to regular weapon tests and characteristically belligerent rhetoric while refusing further talks with the U.S.
Still, Kim has refrained from any new nuclear or ICBM provocations, though experts and intelligence officials say research continues on both programs behind closed doors.
A leaked United Nations report recently warned that nuclear-armed North Korean ICBMs can likely now hit the U.S. mainland, as has long been believed by experts and intelligence and military officials.
South Korea’s defense ministry has suggested that the North may be planning to show off a new ICBM or submarine-launched ICBM at an October 10 military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of its ruling Workers’ Party.
Unveiling such a weapon so close to the U.S. presidential elections would be a smudge on Trump’s foreign policy record. The president has repeatedly claimed success on the North Korea front, though little of real substance has been achieved.
Harry Kazianis, the senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest, wrote in an article published Wednesday that the North may use the parade to unveil its first solid-fueled ICBM.
A solid-fuel ICBM would be more mobile than the liquid fuel Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 missiles—currently the North’s longest-range weapons—would require less preparation time and could be left in a fueled state, he explained.
“Solid-fueled missiles carry the advantage of being able to stay in a fueled and ready-to-strike state. As a result, they are much more reliable and can be launched faster,” Kazianis wrote.
“That seems to be the most likely of scenarios based on their history, and it’s what we are expecting, but, of course, we are hoping to be proven wrong,” he added, citing White House and military officials.
Soofer said Wednesday that the U.S. is building up its own missile defense capabilities to counter any new weapons in the North. The U.S. is preparing tests of new ship-based SM-3 interceptors that can engage incoming ballistic weapons.
“We will conduct a test before the end of this calendar year, and if it works, then figure out some way to integrate into our defense,” Soofer said. “And if it does work now, we have the capability to address the North Korean threat,” he added.