SEOUL • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said yesterday that the isolated nuclear-capable country was close to test-launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
North Korea tested ballistic missiles at an unprecedented rate last year, although some experts have said it is years away from developing an ICBM fitted with a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the US.
"Research and development of cutting-edge arms equipment is actively progressing and ICBM rocket test launch preparation is in its last stage," Mr Kim said during a televised New Year's Day speech.
The country has been under UN sanctions since 2006 over its nuclear and ballistic missile tests. The sanctions were tightened last month after Pyongyang conducted its fifth and largest nuclear test on Sept 9. Its fourth nuclear test was conducted on Jan 6 last year.
A successful ICBM test launch would mark a significant step forward for secretive Pyongyang's weapons capability. ICBMs have a minimum range of about 5,500km, but some can travel 10,000km or farther. California is roughly 9,000km from North Korea.
However, North Korea has struggled to reliably deploy its intermediate-range Musudan ballistic missile, succeeding just once in eight attempted launches last year. The Musudan is designed to fly about 3,000km, posing a threat to South Korea and Japan, and possibly the US territory of Guam.
South Korea's Defence Ministry declined to comment on whether North Korea would test-launch an ICBM soon.
According to a senior US intelligence official, US President-elect Donald Trump's first request for a special classified intelligence briefing was for one on North Korea and its nuclear weapons programme.
Mr An Chan Il, a former North Korean military officer who defected to the South and runs a think-tank in Seoul, said Mr Kim will gauge Mr Trump's comments about his country for potential interest in dialogue and decide whether to conduct a test launch.
"If Mr Trump comes in and the North does not get a good signal in terms of how the relationship between the two countries is going to go, that'll give them another reason to do it," Mr An said.
Mr Trump, who takes office on Jan 20, likened Mr Kim to a "maniac" during his campaign while suggesting he could meet Mr Kim for nuclear talks.
The North Korean leader also said that the North would continue to develop its pre-emptive nuclear strike capability if the US and South Korea continue to conduct annual joint military exercises.
A senior US military official said last month that North Korea appears able to mount a miniaturised nuclear warhead on a missile but is still struggling with missile re-entry technology necessary for longer-range strikes.
Mr Thae Yong Ho, North Korea's former deputy ambassador to Britain who defected to the South in August, has said Mr Kim was planning a "prime time" nuclear weapons push this year to take advantage of leadership transitions in Washington and Seoul.
REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE