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Press stories appearing in early December 2011 raised the possibility of a North Korean mobile intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM). Given what is known publicly about North Korea’s missile program, this is a surprising claim that is worth examining.
The impression these and other stories give is that North Korea is developing a new ballistic missile—leap-frogging its previous efforts at building a long-range missile—and is on the verge of posing a new threat to the United States.
This is almost certainly not the case. As the analysis below shows, these reports do not necessarily imply the development of a new missile different than those which it is already known to be working on. Instead, they may mean that the North is building or acquiring trucks or trailers that can be used to transport missiles currently under development.
The earliest public statement about a possible North Korean mobile ICBM was a comment by Robert Gates just before he stepped down as Secretary of Defense six months after his January 2011 remarks that Pyongyang might have a nuclear-armed intercontinental missile within five years.
In particular, on June 4, 2011,responding to a question about North Korea during a meeting in Singapore, Secretary Gates talked about a looming threat and added the detail about a potential mobile ICBM:
“With the continued development of long-range missiles and potentially a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, and their continued development of nuclear weapons, North Korea is in the process of becoming a direct threat to the United States.”
Just two and a half weeks later in a June 21 interview in Newsweek, Secretary Gates went beyond his previous statements, expressing much more certainty about both the threat to the United States and the existence of a mobile ICBM program:
“North Korea now constitutes a direct threat to the United States. The president told [China’s] President Hu that last year. They are developing a road-mobile ICBM. I never would have dreamed they would go to a road-mobile before testing a static ICBM.”
Unfortunately, he was not asked to elaborate in either case. It is odd that in early June Secretary Gates referred to North Korea as “in the process of becoming” a direct threat to the United States—consistent with his statements the previous January—while two weeks later he said that the United States had already considered North Korea to be a direct threat the previous year. Read the rest of this article.