SEOUL -- North Korea could test an intercontinental ballistic missile ahead of or in response to U.S.-South Korean military drills in March, the allies suspect, in an attempt to back up its still slim threat of strikes on the American mainland.
The North will keep bolstering its capacity for self-defense and pre-emptive strikes, particularly in terms of nuclear weapons, as long as the South and U.S. continue to hold "war rehearsals," Pyongyang's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said Wednesday night, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. The annual Key Resolve/Foal Eagle joint military exercises that Washington and Seoul have planned for March will bring "catastrophic" results, the committee warned.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Tuesday spoke with Han Min-koo, his counterpart in Seoul, by telephone regarding the threat posed by North Korea's ongoing missile and nuclear development. The possibility of Pyongyang obtaining intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, was noted as a particular concern. Mattis arrived in South Korea on Thursday for face-to-face talks.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Jan. 1 that his country was in the "final stages" before test launching an ICBM. The North has since said it could fire such a missile "anytime and anywhere." The missiles are clearly intended as a threat to the U.S., with a range topping 5,500km and mobile launchers difficult to detect by satellite.
The North has given no clear timing for a test. 38 North, an analysis website affiliated with Johns Hopkins University of the U.S., reported earlier this year that Pyongyang may be preparing a known launch site along the Sea of Japan for a test. South Korea's Yonhap News Agency on Thursday reported that two ICBMs previously detected by a U.S. satellite have disappeared, likely into a hangar awaiting the order to launch.
Pyongyang still has technical hurdles to overcome in creating missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland, most significantly the problem of atmospheric re-entry. "When a missile launched outside the atmosphere re-enters, its nose cone" -- the missile tip North Korea has been working to perfect in recent years -- "must be able to withstand heat in excess of 7,000 C," according to Hideya Kurata, a professor at the Japanese Defense Ministry's National Defense Academy.
The North heat-tested these key components in a laboratory in March 2016, and in the real world with the launch of Musudan midrange missiles in June, Kurata said. "But it is tough to create 7,000-degree conditions artificially, and the missiles launched in June fell into the sea and have not been recovered," the professor said. This is part of what leads the U.S. to believe Pyongyang has not yet developed a nuclear missile capable of reaching the American mainland. The U.S. and South Korean militaries have made the same assessment regarding ICBMs in general.
Because the North is small in geographic terms, Pyongyang cannot easily follow Beijing's lead and refine re-entry and warhead technology on its own territory, according to Kurata. But it may try to show off its advances in heat resistance by landing a non-nuclear missile on its own terrain, he said.
For Pyongyang, an ideal scenario would be to negotiate a peace deal directly with U.S. President Donald Trump's administration involving the withdrawal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula. Threatening an ICBM launch at any moment aims to encourage such a deal. The 75th anniversary of former leader Kim Jong Il's birth on Feb. 16, or the days surrounding March's military exercises, could be prime opportunities to back up that threat with action.
Nikkei staff writer Togo Shiraishi in Tokyo contributed to this article.