North Korea now has a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can be mounted on a missile, according to an analysis by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the Washington Post reports. North Korea has claimed to have this capability for some time now, and for planning purposes, U.S. military commanders had already been working under the assumption that those claims were true. However, Tuesday’s revelation is a much stronger confirmation.
North Korea reached this milestone years before many experts expected it would, suggesting that despite years of sanctions and isolation, North Korea is moving rapidly toward becoming a full-fledged nuclear power with global strike capability.
We don’t know if the new warhead design has been tested, and there do appear to still be some kinks to work out. The missile that North Korea tested in July appeared to catch fire and disintegrate when it passed back through the Earth’s atmosphere, indicating that the country’s engineers haven’t yet perfected the re-entry process. But it’s likely only a matter of time before they do.
The report comes just days after the U.N. Security Council slapped new sanctions on North Korea, prompting the country’s government to vow retaliation. U.S. lawmakers are increasingly willing to openly advocate a pre-emptive military strike against the North Korean nuclear program, but if the regime already has the capability of striking the U.S. with nuclear weapons, such a strike would be a much riskier proposition.
This doesn’t mean war is inevitable: The United States coexisted (uneasily) for decades of the Cold War with an enemy capable of hitting the U.S. with nuclear weapons. But the stakes are certainly much higher.