Former US Pacific Command chief Adm. Dennis Blair challenged the notion that North Korea is an "imminent threat" to the US during a Tuesday congressional hearing. "It's only an imminent threat if we make it an imminent threat," Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding, "we've been talking these guys up a lot more than they deserve."
The vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff echoed the admiral's assertion that North Korean military capabilities may be overhyped, even if those capabilities have advanced rapidly over the past year.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's missile forces have yet to show their projectiles can fly far enough to reach the US while holding a stable course, US Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman, told reporters Tuesday.
Despite progress in North Korean missile technology, "what he [Kim] has not demonstrated yet are the fusing and targeting technologies and survivable re-entry vehicle," Selva said.
Still, "it is possible [Kim] has them, so we have to place the bet that he might have them" the general said. "But he hasn't demonstrated them."
The statements reiterate Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' December comments when asked whether Pyongyang's November 29 missile test proved Pyongyang has the full capability to attack the US mainland.
"No, not yet," Mattis told reporters on December 15. "It has not yet shown to be a capable threat against us right now."
Not everyone in the US is on the same page about the status of the North Korean threat. "We are mindful that Kim Jong-un continues to present a risk not only to the United States but the world. Collectively, the United States and our intelligence partners around the world have developed a pretty clear understanding of Kim Jong-un's capability. We talk about his having the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States in a matter of a handful of months," CIA Director Mike Pompeo said January 22.
Of course, Pompeo was promulgating the same line in October. "You're now talking about months," until North Korean missiles could strike the US East Coast, for instance, Pompeo claimed October 20.
Choe Son-hui, director of the North Korean Foreign Ministry's North American Department, told conference attendees in Moscow last October that Pyongyang's "ultimate goal is to achieve a balance with the United States, so they dare not talk about any military actions against the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]." The diplomat also stated that the US is the only country being actively targeted by Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities.
Evgeny Kim, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Center for Korean Studies, explained that the North Korean claims were hyperbolic.
"Of course, there is some exaggeration here, because North Korea cannot achieve parity with the US in nuclear-armed missile technology, not now or in the next decade. First, they do not have the kind of means of delivery the US does," Kim said, and "second, they do not have as many nuclear warheads as the US. North Korea has tested nuclear warheads, but isn't mass producing them. They will probably be able to start mass production sometime in the next two to three years."
Still, Pyongyang is "correct in the sense that they have capabilities that could cause some damage to US military power," the expert said, pointing out that North Korean missile technologies could destroy the USS Ronald Reagan supercarrier based in the Sea of Japan.