North Korea may be capable of launching a nuclear missile in 2018, South Korea says

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This picture from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) taken on August 29, 2017 and released on August 30, 2017 shows North Korea's intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 lifting off from the launching pad at an undisclosed location near Pyongyang. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea may be able to pair a nuclear warhead with a long-range ballistic missile sometime next year, a top South Korean minister said during an unusually candid assessment of Pyongyang’s weapons programs.

Authorities in Seoul believe North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will push to achieve that goal in time for next September’s 70th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is officially known, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said Tuesday at a news conference.

“They have been developing their nuclear capabilities faster than expected,” Cho said. “We cannot rule out the possibility of North Korea declaring the completion of their nuclear program next year.”

Data pix.

A US official speaking on the condition of anonymity told CNN over the summer that Washington believes Pyongyang will be able to launch a reliable nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by early 2018.

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, said in a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May that North Korea's final hurdle is perfecting technology to ensure a nuclear warhead survives the heat-intensive process of reentering the earth's atmosphere.

Perfecting reentry is "really a matter of enough trial and error to make that work," Stewart said. "They understand the physics, so it's just a matter of design."

Though analysts and North Korea watchers disagree on the hermit state's progress, most say we will not know with certainty if they can pair a nuclear warhead with a missile unless they actually launch one.

North Korean Foreign Ministry Ri Yong Ho hinted in September at the possibility that Pyongyang could carry out an atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean, possibly by strapping a warhead atop a missile or dropping it from an airplane.

Regardless, 2017 has seen North Korea launch missiles at an unprecedented clip.

Pyongyang tested two missiles in July that demonstrated intercontinental range. It is currently testing a more advanced version of its existing ICBM, a US official told CNN earlier this month.

But Pyongyang has not tested a missile or nuclear weapon since September, a move that has "puzzled" US authorities. Some North Korea watchers have speculated the pause is for mundane reasons, such as North Korea diverting resources to hit annual domestic production quotas by the end of the year.

Tuesday's news conference itself was highly unusual. Senior South Korean officials rarely speak about North Korea's nuclear program at length and with such candor. The government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in seems to be breaking with past policy in suggesting that recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power could be viewed as a realistic way to set the stage for any future negotiations.

Asked whether the Moon government would be willing to have talks with North Korea without the precondition of denuclearization, unlike the two previous administrations, the minister replied, "We do not think there has been a major change in the government's position ... but if necessary we may need to engage in dialogue with North Korea to bring it to the negotiation table."

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