Analysts tracking North Korea’s nuclear program based on its propaganda say they aren’t surprised by the communist country’s capabilities.
Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert with the Middlebury Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies program in Monterey, Calif., told The Wall Street Journal that by studying photos and videos of other missile tests, he and his team knew North Korea had the capabilities for an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten the U.S. mainland.
He said he believes North Korea has the ability to hit New York or Los Angeles with a missile carrying a warhead.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump have engaged in a war of words that has only escalated in the past few weeks. Trump nicknamed Kim “Rocket Man” and castigated the rogue nation during his address to the United Nations General Assembly last month.
In return, Kim called Trump “deranged” and warned that the U.S. will “pay dearly” for his threats.
The U.S. and its allies are on alert since North Korea tested intercontinental missiles into the Pacific near Japan and Guam, a highly strategic U.S. territory. Pyongyang conducted its longest-ever ballistic missile test flight last month.
Since Kim Jong Un took over the nation in 2011, it has rapidly expanded and tested its missile arsenal with weapons capable of striking the U.S. mainland. His end goal, he reportedly said, is to "establish the equilibrium of real force with the U.S. and make the U.S. rulers dare not talk about military options” for the North.
Read on for a brief look at how North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has grown throughout the regimes in the past century.
Kim Il Sung, leader from 1948-1994
Kim Il Sung can be credited with founding North Korea and propelling the nation’s nuclear program forward — but he did not live to see his country conduct its first nuclear test.
It was under the first Kim that North Korea began to build up its nuclear reactors. And it was under his leadership that the nation began the Korean War — surely a catalyst that led the leader to believe his nation needed nuclear weapons, Dr. Sung-Yoon Lee, the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, told Fox News in an interview.
“The seeds of nuclear aspirations were sown in the Korean War,” Lee said.
The Korean War pitted North Korea and its ally China — two nations that did not have nuclear capabilities at the time — against a nuclear-armed U.S., making it “clear to the first Kim that nuclear weapons are very powerful, a powerful deterrent,” Lee said.
Kim Jong Il, leader from 1994-2011
When the second leader of the Kim dynasty died in 2011, Kim Jong Il was remembered as the “dictator who turned North Korea into a nuclear state,” in his New York Times obituary.
And it’s Kim Jong Il that really “gets the credit of taking the country down the nuclear path," Lee said.
In the beginning of his reign — he was North Korea’s supreme leader from 1994 to 2011 — North Korea denied that it had a nuclear weapons program.
However, in 2003, Pyongyang announced that North Korea was withdrawing from the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which barred the nation from making nuclear weapons.
Kim Jong Un, leader from 2011-present
Kim Jong Un is credited with accelerating North Korea’s push for nuclear weapons, and under the Obama administration, many of the world’s attitudes toward the East Asian nation’s nuclear capabilities became less blasé than in the past, Lee said.
And Kim Jong Un recently crossed a major threshold for his country this summer — the ability to credibly threaten the U.S. with an intercontinental ballistic missile.
North Korea last month successfully tested its longest-ever flight of a ballistic missile. The intermediate-range weapon traveled 3,700 miles and passed over Japan before it landed in the Pacific. Earlier this month, the country also tested its most powerful nuclear test to date.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis condemned the test and said it caused “millions of Japanese” to “duck and cover.” Mattis also said the U.S. and Japan are ready for potential future missile threats.
After the missile test, Kim Jong Un said North Korea is nearing “equilibrium” with the U.S. in terms of its military force.
The increasingly frequent and aggressive tests have added to outside fears that North Korea is closer than ever to building a military arsenal that could viably target the mainland of the U.S. or its allies in Asia.
Trump called Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” in his speech to the U.N. last month and said the dictator is on a “suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
“The United States has great strength and patience,” Trump said. “But if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.