Friday, December 15, 2017 11:50:07 PM
AP, Seoul :
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter to vow that North Korea won't develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the United States. But it might already have done so.
Views vary, sometimes wildly, on the exact state of North Korea's closely-guarded nuclear and missile programs, but after five atomic test explosions and a rising number of ballistic missile test launches, some experts believe North Korea can arm short- and mid-range missiles with atomic warheads.
That would allow Pyongyang to threaten U.S. forces stationed in Asia and add teeth to its threat last year to use nuclear weapons to "sweep Guam, the base of provocations, from the surface of the earth."
Guam is a strategically important U.S. territory in the Pacific. Some experts see the U.S. mainland as potentially within reach in as little as five years if North Korea's nuclear progress isn't stopped.
Trump's tweet on Monday night U.S. time was in response to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who said Sunday in his annual New Year's address that preparations for launching an intercontinental ballistic missile have "reached the final stage." He did not explicitly say a test was imminent.
Trump tweeted, "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!" Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway said Monday on MSNBC that the world should be grateful Trump told millions of people that, where the North Korean threat is concerned, "he intends to stop it."
North Korea, poor, suspicious of outsiders and governed by a third-generation dictator, is used to being underestimated and mocked. Few believed it could build a nuclear program that would keep U.S. presidents since the early 1990s up at night.
Armed to the teeth, acutely bellicose and not afraid to push tensions on the Korean Peninsula to the brink, Pyongyang could be among Trump's top foreign policy challenges.
Here's a look at how close North Korea may already be to proving Trump's tweet wrong:
The Republican billionaire has already upended precedent by routinely taking to Twitter since his election last month to lambast critics and issue statements-sometimes about the most serious national security issues-sending analysts scrambling to divine what they may mean for US policy once he takes office on January 20.
He launched a solo bid to restart the Cold War arms race last month, tweeting that the United States must "greatly strengthen and expand" its nuclear capabilities.
He has also angered China by tweeting accusations of military expansionism and currency manipulation.
But he will need Beijing, Pyongyang's closest ally, to deal with North Korea's mounting confrontation.
However, he appeared to complicate that prospect with his latest criticism on Monday evening following his vow about North Korea.
"China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the US in totally one-sided trade, but won't help with North Korea," he tweeted. "Nice!"
In a 30-minute televised New Year's speech on Sunday, Kim said Pyongyang had "soared as a nuclear power," adding that it is now a "military power of the East that cannot be touched by even the strongest enemy."
Although he did not make a specific reference to the incoming Trump administration, he called on Washington to make a "resolute decision to withdraw its anachronistic hostile North Korea policy."
Analysts are divided over how close Pyongyang is to realizing its full nuclear ambitions, especially as it has never successfully test-fired an ICBM.
However, North Korea carried out two nuclear tests and numerous missile launches last year in pursuit of its oft-stated goal-developing a weapons system capable of hitting the US mainland with a nuclear warhead.
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