SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has determined that North Korea is capable of mounting a nuclear warhead on its medium-range Rodong ballistic missile, which could reach all of the South and most of Japan, a senior government official said Tuesday.
The government’s assessment, shared in a background briefing with representatives of foreign news media here, followed a recent claim by North Korea that it had “standardized” nuclear warheads small enough to be carried by ballistic missiles. Until Tuesday, South Korean government officials, like most of their US counterparts, had played down that claim.
But after four recent nuclear tests by the North, the latest on Jan. 6, some nongovernmental analysts in South Korea have said that the North may have learned how to fit its medium-range Rodong missile with nuclear warheads, even though it may still be years away from building a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile that could target the continental United States.
Although the government official echoed that assessment Tuesday, he added that South Korea had no evidence that the North had deployed such nuclear-tipped Rodong missiles.
The missile, first deployed in the 1990s, can fly about 800 miles, which would put some US military bases in South Korea and Japan within its range. It could carry a warhead weighing about 1,500 to 2,200 pounds, according to the South Korean military.
North Korea test-launched two Rodong missiles last month, flouting United Nations resolutions that ban the country from developing or testing ballistic missile technology.
The tests took place days after the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, ordered more tests of ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. Kim also recently visited a factory where he inspected what looked like a model nuclear warhead and long-range missile, according to photographs released in the country’s official media.
North Korea also said that Kim had overseen a successful test of “re-entry” technology, which is needed for a warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile to survive the heat and vibrations while plunging through the atmosphere toward its target.
There is continuing debate about how close North Korea has come to acquiring nuclear-tipped missiles. The country has never flight-tested a long-range missile.
After the North’s recent claims, the South Korean Defense Ministry issued a statement on March 9 saying it did not believe the North had achieved the miniaturization of a nuclear warhead. But the statement did not clarify whether it meant for long-range missiles or missiles of shorter ranges.
The Pentagon has also voiced skepticism. “We have not seen North Korea demonstrate capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon, and again, put it on a ballistic missile,” Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, said on March 15.
But one leading US military commander, Admiral William E. Gortney, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month that according to his assessments, the North Koreans “have the ability to put an ICBM in space and range the continental United States and Canada.”
Although US intelligence officials have said that sort of attack would have “a very low probability at success,” Gortney said it was a “prudent decision” to assume that the North “has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and put it on an ICBM.”
The South Korean official who talked to reporters Tuesday said that North Korea still needed “several years” before mastering the technology to build a nuclear warhead small and sophisticated enough to be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile.