Korea and the United States are troublingly out of sync on assessing the danger of a North Korean nuclear attack.
According to Adm. William Gortney, commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, North Korea has the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to attach to an operational road mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States.
“Our assessment is that [Pyongyang has] the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the [U.S.] homeland,” he said in a briefing Tuesday at the U.S. Department of Defense.
U.S. officials had previously displayed concern about progress in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and the capability of its long-range KN-08 missile. But it is the first time the issue has been addressed by a senior official in a press conference. Strangely, though, the Korean defense ministry appeared calm, saying it had checked with U.S. intelligence authorities who said Gortney’s comment was his own opinion. It is unusual for Seoul to contradict a senior U.S. commander’s public comment citing U.S. intelligence sources.
Moreover, it is worrisome that Seoul and Washington are poles apart on how they view the potential for nuclear missile attack by North Korea. Gortney’s comment came after Frank Rose, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, said the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system is a “critical capability” for dealing with threats from North Korea’s long-range ballistic and shorter-range Scud missiles.
Senior U.S. officials may have been trying to emphasize the need to deploy the Thaad system by exaggerating the nuclear threat ahead of the visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who arrived Thursday in Seoul. But we cannot take the U.S. assessment lightly, since North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006 and India and Pakistan succeeded in miniaturizing their nuclear arsenals a few years after their first tests.
What is imperative is for our military and government to have precise information on the North’s nuclear weapon and missile capabilities. Seoul also must demand that Washington share all its information on North Korea’s nuclear program. If the U.S. is certain about advanced nuclear capabilities, it must present and share its data with Seoul. Mutual trust between allies is essential. If the two countries cannot share or agree on the potential threat from North Korea will we ever be able to win, with or without Thaad’s protection?
JoongAng Ilbo, April 10, Page 34