On Tuesday, the South Korean military also said it was closely watching missile-related activities in the North.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has focused on visiting factories and farms in recent weeks, instead of military-related events. But North Korea has made it clear that despite increasingly crippling sanctions, it remains determined to develop the ability to hit the United States, as well as its allies in the region, with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
In its last missile test, on Sept. 15, a North Korean intermediate-range Hwasong-12 ballistic missile flew 2,300 miles east, passing over northern Japan and falling into the Pacific Ocean, demonstrating a range that could reach American military bases in Guam, a key launching pad for American forces should war break out on the Korean Peninsula. The North’s military has threatened to launch missiles in an “enveloping strike” around Guam.
The United States restored North Korea to its list of state sponsors of terrorism on Nov. 20, signaling that President Trump had no interest in easing his policy of applying “maximum” pressure and sanctions until the North agreed to return to the negotiating table to discuss denuclearizing.
North Korea claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb on Sept. 3, in its sixth and most powerful nuclear test yet. The country has also launched two Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, in July, the last of which demonstrated the potential of reaching major cities in the continental United States.
But the North’s missiles have never achieved a full ICBM range. Nor has the country demonstrated that its nuclear warheads could survive the intense heat and friction of re-entering the atmosphere after a long-range flight through space and hit their targets.
Some analysts have said the recent hiatus in missile tests indicated that North Korean engineers still faced challenges such as the re-entry stage. In recent weeks, however, North Korea has repeatedly claimed to be in the “final” stage of acquiring full ICBM capability.
“They still need to clear technical hurdles in long-range missile technologies, including the re-entry know-how,” Mr. Cho said on Tuesday. “Some experts have said it will take them two or three years, but we also need to note that the North has been developing its technologies faster than expected.
“I would not be surprised if the North declares it has completed its nuclear arms capabilities next year, which is a landmark year for the country, with its Workers’ Party set to turn 70,” he added. North Korea has often celebrated its key anniversaries with major weapons tests.