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Testimony

Empty Threat or Serious Danger: Assessing North Korea’s Risk to the Homeland

Testimony for House Homeland Security Committee, Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee
12th October 2017

Download the full testimony here.

Chairman Perry, Ranking Member Correa, and distinguished members of this subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to address you today on this important issue.

My testimony will begin with a review of North Korea’s nuclear- and missile-related proliferation activities, followed by a discussion of how Iran-style sanctions can sharply increase the amount of pressure on Pyongyang. My testimony will conclude with recommendations for how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should implement its mandate to monitor North Korean vessels in order to maximize the impact of sanctions.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs are expanding after a decade of failed American policies and now pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland. Pyongyang has threatened our close allies, South Korea and Japan, as well as the U.S. troops stationed for decades on allied territory. The progress of North Korea’s programs should not be surprising since Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test 11 years ago; its weaponization program likely started before then. Its long-range missile program has lasted for more than 20 years and is beginning to show success.

Pyongyang twice tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in July. Both tests were launched in a lofted trajectory to avoid overflying Japan. But technical analysis of the second test on July 28 suggests that North Korean ICBMs could target Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, and possibly Boston and New York.[1] While an ICBM may reach that distance, questions remain about the survivability of Pyongyang’s missiles during their reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, since the effectiveness of the heat shields protecting their warheads is unknown.[2] However, it is important not to underestimate North Korea’s ability to overcome these challenges, since Pyongyang’s progress on the ICBM program has outpaced the intelligence community’s development timelines by two years.[3]

Kim Jong Un’s regime followed its successful ICBM launches in July with a massive thermonuclear weapon test on September 3. As part of that test, North Korea likely succeeded in detonating a nuclear weapon designed to obliterate cities, which could be delivered by its long-range missiles.[4] The threat we face is acute and growing. After years of passivity justified by the mantra of “strategic patience,” the time has come for a policy of “maximum pressure” that actually stands a chance of restraining the threat without resorting to war.


[1] David Wright, “North Korean ICBM Appears Able to Reach Major US Cities,” Union of Concerned Scientists, July 28, 2017. (http://allthingsnuclear.org/dwright/new-north-korean-icbm)

[2] David Wright, “Reentry Heating from North Korea’s July 4 Missile Test,” Union of Concerned Scientists, July 7, 2017. (http://allthingsnuclear.org/dwright/july-4-reentry-heating)

[3] Ellen Nakashima, Anna Fifield, and Joby Warrick, “North Korea could cross ICBM threshold next year, U.S. officials warn in new assessment,” The Washington Post, July 25, 2017. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/north-korea-could-cross-icbm-threshold-next-year-us-officials-warn-in-new-assessment/2017/07/25/4107dc4a-70af-11e7-8f39-eeb7d3a2d304_story.html?nid&utm_term=.63b042018d2a)

[4] Anna Fifield, “In latest test, North Korea detonates its most powerful nuclear device yet,” The Washington Post, September 3, 2017. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/north-korea-apparently-conducts-another-nuclear-test-south-korea-says/2017/09/03/7bce3ff6-905b-11e7-8df5-c2e5cf46c1e2_story.html?utm_term=.17217f662896)