The United States has remained technically at war with North Korea since the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty. The past six decades have been punctuated by periodic rises in antagonism and rhetoric that have always stopped short of a resumption of active hostilities.
Tensions have risen since North Korea carried out two nuclear bomb tests last year and two ICBM tests last month.
The Trump administration’s attempts to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear and missile ambitions have so far gained little traction.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has warned of an “effective and overwhelming” response against North Korea if it chose to use nuclear weapons but has said any military solution would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.”
The United States has 28,500 troops in South Korea to guard against the North Korean threat. Japan hosts around 54,000 U.S. military personnel, the U.S. Department of Defense says, and tens of thousands of Americans work in both countries.
Seoul is home to a population of roughly 10 million, within range of massed pre-targeted North Korean rockets and artillery, which would be impossible to destroy in a first U.S. strike.
The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, according to a confidential U.S. intelligence assessment.
But U.S. intelligence officials told Reuters that while North Korea has accelerated its efforts to design an ICBM, a miniaturized nuclear warhead, and a nosecone robust enough to survive reentry through the Earths atmosphere from space, there is no reliable evidence that it has mastered all three, much less tested and combined them into a weapon capable of hitting targets in the United States.
The bottom line is that its almost impossible, given the amount and reliability of available intelligence, to reach a high-confidence assessment of the Norths nuclear capabilities, a U.S. intelligence official said.
U.S. intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said there is no certainty about the number of nuclear warheads North Korea has assembled, with estimates ranging from 20 to as many as 60 and most experts leaning toward the lower end of that range.
North Korea’s ICBM tests last month suggested it was making technical progress, Japan’s annual Defence White Paper warned.
“It is conceivable that North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme has already considerably advanced and it is possible that North Korea has already achieved the miniaturisation of nuclear weapons and has acquired nuclear warheads,” it said.