War with North Korea cannot be ruled out after its test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the US and South Korean militaries have warned.
“Self-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war,” senior generals said on Wednesday.
The two allies held a joint missile response drill following Kim Jong-un’s Independence Day “gift package” — a confirmed ICBM test of a projectile with the potential to hit the US state of Alaska.
South Korea warned its neighbour conflict would mean its “destruction”, as it tested precision ballistic missiles alongside the US.
Last weekend’s parade, the experts said, showed a natural arc in North Korea’s progress:
a mix of propaganda, aspirations and actual progress, to take with a grain of salt. In the parade North Korea showcased two apparently new ICBMs, larger even than existing models already designed to reach the east coast of the US.
“That does not mean it’s ready, that also does not mean it’s fake,” Pollack said.
“You see a mix of old and new, some things not quite ready for primetime, others tried and true.”
Hecker and Pollack have urged diplomacy to stall North Korea’s program, saying that Obama’s non-negotiating policy of “strategic patience” gave Kim time to develop ICBMs as leverage.
“The good news, if you’re worried, is first of all the North Koreans are not suicidal, they’re not going to just start a war,” Pollack said, noting that the US had coexisted for decades with other nuclear rivals, Russia and China.
“So this is a familiar condition for us and I don’t think we need to get too worked up.”
Gen Vincent Brooks, commander of US forces in Korea, and Gen Lee Sun-jin, chairman of the South’s joint chiefs of staff, said in a statement: “We are able to change our choice when so ordered by our alliance’s national leaders.
“It would be a grave mistake for anyone to believe anything to the contrary.
“As the combined live fire demonstrated, we may make resolute decisions any time, if the alliance commanders-in-chief order it. Whoever thinks differently is making a serious misjudgement.”
Separately, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said:
“We remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies and to use the full range of capabilities at our disposal against the growing threat from North Korea.”
Uncowed, Mr Kim has reportedly ordered his scientists to “frequently send big and small ‘gift packages’ to the Yankees”, thought to refer to more missile and nuclear weapons tests.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said “global action is required to stop a global threat” and that “we will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea”.
However, he said the US wanted “only the peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.
While North Korea cannot hide its missile tests – even short-range tests are usually visible to satellites – it has performed nuclear tests in a tunnel system beneath a mile-high mountain.
The secrecy means experts know relatively little about how small or sophisticated North Korea’s bombs are, or how many exist.
Experts agreed, however, that North Korea probably has the means to fit a warhead to an ICBM.
“It’s within the range of their technical capabilities and competence,” Bermudez said. “That doesn’t mean they could easily or successfully do it.”
The US has reportedly made it more difficult for North Korea to get missiles off the ground, with a series of cyber-attacks begun by Barack Obama.
But government hackers alone probably cannot stop North Korea’s ambitions, Bermudez said.
“It’s likely that any cyberwarfare campaign would not be able to stop either the nuclear program or the ballistic program, only delay it.”
Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed a plan to pursue talks with the North in order to curb its nuclear ambitions during their recent meeting in Washington.
As Vladimir Putin met with Xi Jinping for talks on international affairs, China and Russia proposed on Tuesday that North Korea end its testing programme while the US and South Korea hold off their large-scale military exercises.
Mr Trump has tried to increase pressure on Mr Jinping to rein in Mr Kim, for whom China is his sole major ally.
The US President said after Tuesday’s ICBM test:
“Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer.
Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”