A man in Seoul, South Korea, watches a TV news program Thursday about a recent North Korean rocket launch.

A man in Seoul, South Korea, watches a TV news program Thursday about a recent North Korean rocket launch.

U.S. calls mobile North Korean missile a top threat

North Korea continues to develop a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that “would likely be capable of reaching much of the continental U.S.,” the Pentagon said in a new report to Congress on the secretive regime’s military capabilities.

The KN-08 missile would have an estimated range of more than 3,400 miles, and North Korea already has six “road-mobile” launchers for it, according to the annual report delivered to congressional committees Friday and obtained by Bloomberg News. A mobile missile can be harder to track than a silo-based weapon, although the threat from the KN-08 depends on whether it’s “successfully designed and developed,” the Defense Department cautioned.

The new report, reaffirming a judgment about the KN-08 made by the Pentagon in 2013, arrives amid rising tensions after North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Jan. 6 and launched a long-range rocket on Feb. 7. South Korea and the U.S. have said they will begin talks about deploying an American ballistic missile interceptor system known as Thaad on the Korean peninsula.

In the U.S., the House sent legislation to President Barack Obama on Friday authorizing new sanctions against North Korea. The measure, H.R. 757, would impose sanctions against individuals, companies and foreign governments that contribute to North Korea’s nuclear program and ballistic missile development. It also would penalize those who send luxury goods enjoyed by the regime’s elite or aid in its censorship or human rights abuses.

Other sections of the Defense Department report said that North Korea:

Is pursuing the capability to launch ballistic missiles from submarines, reflecting “the regime’s commitment to diversifying its missile force.”

Views offensive cyber operations as a tool “it can employ with little risk from reprisal attacks, in part because its networks are largely separated from the Internet.”

May consider the use of chemical and biological weapons.

U.S. intelligence on Kim Jong Un’s reclusive regime in North Korea depends in part on watching the country’s annual military parades, an exercise that spawns debate about whether the equipment displayed is functional or mock-ups. Four missiles on KN-08 launchers in an October parade were “noticeably different” from those shown off before, according to the report, which assumes the weapons displayed “are generally representative of missiles that will be fielded.”

“ICBMs are extremely complex systems that require multiple flight tests to identify and correct design or manufacturing defects,” the Pentagon report said. Without flight tests, its current reliability “as a weapon system would be low.”

Pentagon officials outlining a proposed $583 billion defense budget on Tuesday emphasized that North Korea now looms as the prime nuclear threat to the U.S., with the KN-08 viewed as its potentially most dangerous weapon.

Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, revealed that concern about the KN-08, not missiles launched from silos, was behind the decision in 2013 by then- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to expand a force of 30 missile interceptors based in Alaska and California to 44 by next year.

The expansion is to counter “that very threat,” Syring said at the Pentagon. The U.S. plans to conduct its next missile intercept test in November against a target replicating the expected range and speed of the KN-08, he said.

Raytheon builds the hit-to-kill warhead at the center of the U.S.’s $34 billion ground-based missile defense network, which is managed by Boeing. The system successfully intercepted a dummy warhead in June 2014 after two high-profile failures in 2010.

Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, said in his latest annual assessment of major weapons that despite past setbacks, the missile defense system has demonstrated a “limited capability to defend the U.S. homeland from small numbers of intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran.”

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