North Korea's New Nuclear And Missile Test Threat Alerts US
In Tokyo, Japan, among the pressing issues facing President-elect Donald Trump when he takes office on Inauguration Day will be North Korea's rogue nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs - and a crisis might not wait that long.
U.S. forces and allies in Japan and South Korea are on alert for a new missile launch after recent satellite imagery that showed what appeared to be potential preparations at North Korea's Sohae launch facility.
North Korea has carried out two nuclear weapons tests and dozens of missile tests and launches this year in defiance of U.N. sanctions. Although not all the missile tests have been successful, the North has made significant advances in developing nuclear weapons and the technology needed to mount them to long-range missiles.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said last week it was closely monitoring moves by the North Korean military at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site and other possible missile-launching sites and is prepared to respond to any provocative acts, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported.
"North Korea is preparing more launches, and it has also been continuously showing eagerness about nuclear tests and miniaturization of nuclear warheads," Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said recently in Tokyo.
North Korea's leaders have often timed weapons tests or other provocative actions to key dates and events at home or overseas as a way of drawing attention to its demands.
About 36,000 U.S. and Japanese troops and hundreds of aircraft and warships took part in a major exercise held every two years that ended Friday in and around Japan and the western Pacific that was pegged, at least in part, to ballistic missile defense.
In a statement released last month, U.S. Forces-Japan said training scenarios for the exercise will include "integrated air and missile defense and ballistic missile defense in order to keep pace with the growing ballistic missile threat in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region."
North Korea's advances in nuclear weapons and missile technology make defense planners "nervous and alarmed," said Narushige Michishita, director of the security and international studies program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
He said the most recent nuclear test, in September, showed North Korea is capable of building a weapon equivalent in power to the atomic bomb used at Hiroshima in World War II .
North Korea has at least 12, and perhaps as many as 20, functional nuclear weapons and is likely to have an arsenal of 50 to 100 nuclear weapons within the next five years, Michishita said.
North Korea has 200 to 320 medium-range Nodong ballistic missiles that can reach major cities in Japan, along with key U.S. military bases there. The longer-range Musudan missile could threaten U.S. bases in Guam and Alaska. North Korea is developing two other missile variants with range to strike parts of the continental USA.