North Korea still does not appear to have mastered missile re-entry technology and will take at least one or two more years to do so, although its ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead is advancing quickly, South Korea’s vice defence minister said.
Concern that North Korea is close to achieving its goal of putting the mainland United States within range of a nuclear weapon has underpinned a spike in tensions in recent months.
U.S. President Donald Trump warned at the weekend that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” if North Korea acted unwisely, although top U.S. officials said there was no imminent risk of a nuclear war.
“Both the United States and South Korea do not believe North Korea has yet completely gained re-entry technology in material engineering terms,” Vice Defence Minister Suh Choo-suk said in remarks televised on Sunday for a Korea Broadcasting System show.
“We don’t feel they’ve reached that point yet but it’s true they are approaching it. We can’t pinpoint the exact timing, but it will take at least one to two more years,” he said. Suh said North Korea was likely to continue provocations, including nuclear tests, but he did not see a big risk of the North engaging in actual military conflict.
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo agreed that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was likely to continue to test his weapons. “I am quite confident that he will continue to try to develop his missile program, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there was another missile test,” Pompeo told “Fox News Sunday”.
“I’ve heard folks talking about that we’re on the cusp of a nuclear war. I’ve seen no intelligence that would indicate that we’re in that place today,” he said.
North Korea has been testing missiles at an unprecedented pace since last year and said last week it was developing a plan to land missiles near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.
Trump has urged China, the North’s main ally and trading partner, to do more to rein in its neighbor, often linking Beijing’s efforts to comments around U.S.-China trade.
Trump will issue an order later on Monday to determine whether to investigate Chinese trade practices that force U.S. firms operating in China to turn over intellectual property, senior administration officials said on Saturday.
China’s official China Daily said such an investigation would poison the relationship between the two countries.
“By trying to incriminate Beijing as an accomplice in (North Korea’s) nuclear adventure and blame it for a failure that is essentially a failure of all stakeholders, Trump risks making the serious mistake of splitting up the international coalition that is the means to resolve the issue peacefully,” it said.
“Hopefully Trump will find another path. Things will become even more difficult if Beijing and Washington are pitted against each other.”
Asian stocks bounced back on Monday after three losing sessions, but gains were capped by worries about escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula that sent investors fleeing from riskier assets last week.
Financial markets regard tensions between Pyongyang and Washington as more serious than in the past, South Korea’s finance minister said.
“The effect from North Korea-related jitters on financial and foreign exchange markets has been causing some global anxiety and we cannot rule out market volatility can widen from the smallest shock,” Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon said.
U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford is visiting Seoul to discuss the rise in tensions ahead of major U.S.-South Korean joint military drills scheduled for later this month.
South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Lee Jin-woo said the drills, long a source of aggravation for Pyongyang, would go ahead as planned.
“They are just, legal and annual drills that are focused on defense and to curb North Korea’s provocations,” he told a regular briefing in Seoul.
Any new military conflict with North Korea would likely escalate quickly to the use of nuclear weapons, bringing catastrophic casualties and an untold economic impact worldwide, former U.S. defense officials and experts believe.