New North Korea ICBM Report Suggests Pyongyang Can Hit U.S. With Nukes

North Korea likely already has the ability to mount nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to a United Nations report acquired by Reuters. The news has deepened concerns that major American cities are in range of Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal, despite the efforts of President Donald Trump's administration to disarm Kim Jong Un.

The confidential UN report shows that several unnamed nations agree that North Korea has "probably developed miniaturized nuclear devices to fit into the warheads of its ballistic missiles."

The interim report was submitted to the 15-member UN Security Council North Korea sanctions committee Monday, Reuters said, and also noted that Pyongyang is still violating international sanctions and engaging in lucrative cyberattacks to secure much-needed funds.

"The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is continuing its nuclear program, including the production of highly enriched uranium and construction of an experimental light water reactor," the report said. "A Member State assessed that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is continuing production of nuclear weapons."

Newsweek subscription offers >

One nation, not specified in the report, said Pyongyang "may seek to further develop miniaturization in order to allow incorporation of technological improvements such as penetration aid packages or, potentially, to develop multiple warhead systems."

North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon or an ICBM since 2017. Since then, a surprise detente between Pyongyang, Washington, D.C. and Seoul raised hopes of denuclearization and sanctions relief on the peninsula. But subsequent talks have collapsed, with Pyongyang all the while believed to be continuing nuclear and ICBM research.

Experts already believed that North Korea can fit compact nuclear warheads to ICBMs, the longest range of which—the Hwasong-15—has a range of more than 8,000 miles, putting the entire continental U.S. in reach.

The UN report "provides perhaps higher confidence in what we had to assume North Korea was capable of doing, or at least working toward," says Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Newsweek subscription offers >

"But it does not change the overall deterrence picture," Narang told Newsweek, noting that as soon as North Korea demonstrated its Hwasong-14 and -15 ICBMs alongside its latest nuclear device, "it achieved a plausible enough ability—even if it was not perfectly reliable—to be able to hold the U.S. homeland at risk."

Harry Kazianis, the senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, concurred, suggesting the UN report only tells the international community what it already knew. "To be quite honest, I am shocked this is even news at this point," Kazianis told Newsweek.

"This is something that in the Korea-watching community that has already been accepted as reality," he explained. "Why it is news now is that many still can't accept that North Korea has nuclear weapons—a lot of nuclear weapons—and their capabilities are getting ever more powerful with each passing day."

Kazianis recalled a conversation with an unnamed senior White House official, who said Pyongyang "'could kill five million people in as little as 15 minutes if it wanted to, thanks to nuclear weapons." He added: "The Reuters report just an inconvenient reminder to us all that the threat is not going away, and that scares us all."

"The only question now is how accurate would the delivery of a nuclear device be and how many hundreds of thousands of people—if not millions—would die in such an attack," Kazianis said. "This is not a theory, it's almost certainly a fact."

The report refers to "miniaturized warheads," but Narang said this is a little misleading. "The more accurate term is probably 'compact warheads' that can fit atop long-range ballistic missiles," he said. Their significance is that these weapons could allow North Korea to launch multiple warheads on a single ICBM, making them more potent and harder to intercept.

Both the Trump administration and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden have said they remain committed to North Korean denuclearization—a lofty goal that many experts now consider unrealistic. Kim—building on the work of his father and grandfather—finally secured a North Korean nuclear deterrent, and is unlikely to ever give it up willingly.

Kazianis suggested the time has come to shift diplomatic focus to arms control, rather than pursuing increasingly-unlikely disarmament.

"U.S. strategy towards North Korea's nuclear program needs to be radically reimagined, as we operate today as if North Korea can't build, won't build or hasn't built nuclear weapons—a type of nuclear denialism that quite frankly is dangerous," he said.

"We must operate under the assumption, that at least for now, that Pyongyang won't give up its nuclear weapons. If we can cooperate with, deter, compete and live with a nuclear China, Russia and Pakistan, why is North Korea any different?"

"We must move to a new strategy that is much more realistic and do all we can to mitigate the North Korean nuclear threat through arms control," Kazianis said, noting the success of past presidents to cap the nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and Russia since then.

"If we continue to stick our head in the sand and refuse to see the benefits of such a strategy and continue to demand North Korea give up its only real weapon of value, Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal will just keep growing, and that does not do anything to enhance the safety and security of America or that of our allies," he said.

Narang said the UN report should be read as "further evidence that North Korea is consolidating its nuclear weapons force, improving and augmenting it to improve survivability, retaliatory power, and penetration."

"In other words, North Korea is making the technological improvements we would expect any other nuclear weapons power to make," he explained. "And that's precisely what they want us to acknowledge."

A State Department spokesperson told Newsweek it would not comment on a report that has not been released publicly. The spokesperson noted that the UN's North Korea Panel of Experts "has a history of providing high-quality reporting about the implementation of sanctions and we intend to review the POE's findings carefully."

"We call on all UN member states to abide by their obligations under multiple UN Security Council resolutions and fully implement and enforce UN sanctions," the spokesperson added.

"We continue to call on North Korea to avoid provocations, comply with its obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions, and return to sustained and substantive negotiations to achieve final, fully verified and complete denuclearization."

This article has been updated to include comment from the State Department.

ICBM, North Korea, nuclear weapons, disarmament, UN
This July 28, 2017 photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency shows a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile being lauched at an undisclosed location in North Korea. STR/AFP via Getty Images/Getty
New North Korea ICBM Report Suggests Pyongyang Can Hit U.S. With Nukes | World