SEOUL • South Korea has determined that North Korea is capable of mounting a nuclear warhead on its medium-range Rodong ballistic missile, which could reach all of South Korea and most of Japan, a senior government official said on Tuesday.
The government's assessment, shared in a background briefing with foreign news media representatives in Seoul, followed a recent claim by North Korea that it had "standardised" nuclear warheads small enough to be carried by ballistic missiles.
"We believe they have accomplished miniaturisation of a nuclear warhead to mount it on a Rodong missile," said the South Korean official, who has knowledge of South Korea's assessment of the North's nuclear programme.
The United States, South Korea's staunch ally, concurred. "We know that they've said they have that capability and we have to take them at their word," Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said at a briefing for reporters on Tuesday. "We have not seen them demonstrate it, so we don't share that assessment necessarily, but we do accept what they say as a threat we need to take as real."
The Rodong missile, first deployed in the 1990s, can fly about 1,300km and carry a warhead weighing about 700kg, according to newspaper Chosun Ilbo. That would put all of South Korea, most of Japan and parts of Russia and China in range.
Developed from Soviet-era Scud missiles, Rodong missiles make up the bulk of the North's short- and medium-range missile arsenal, with an estimated stockpile of 200.
A REAL THREAT
We know that they've said they have that capability and we have to take them at their word. We have not seen them demonstrate it, so we don't share that assessment necessarily, but we do accept what they say as a threat we need to take as real.
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS, Pentagon spokesman.
North Korea test-launched two Rodong missiles last month, flouting UN resolutions that ban the country from developing or testing ballistic missile technology and prompting the UN Security Council to impose new sanctions.
The tests took place days after the North's leader Kim Jong Un ordered more tests of ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. Mr Kim also recently visited a factory where he inspected what looked like a model nuclear warhead and long-range missile, according to photographs released in the country's official news media.
North Korea also said that Mr Kim had overseen a successful test of "re-entry" technology, which is needed for a warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile to survive the heat and vibrations while plunging through the atmosphere toward its target.
But even if such advances have been made for medium-range missiles, most analysts in the US and South Korea say the North is still years away from building a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile that could target the continental US.
The South Korean official who talked to reporters on Tuesday said the North still needed "several years" before mastering the technology to build a nuclear warhead small and sophisticated enough to be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile.
South Korea has previously said North Korea had made progress in its efforts to miniaturise a nuclear warhead, but the capability was incomplete. South Korea's Defence Ministry said on Tuesday the assessment remained the military's position.
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS