The United States reversed its plan to ban cluster munitions last year and kept its dated stockpiles for one reason: North Korea, a top defense official said Friday.
"That policy change was driven by the North Korean situation," Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said.
"When we were going through our readiness exercise, we said, 'How do we prepare for North Korea?' And we looked at the munitions that are required and the munitions that were available," he said in response to questions during the annual Military Reporters & Editors conference outside Washington, D.C.
Shanahan said developing a replacement for cluster bombs would take too long when faced with the North Korean threat, so the Pentagon looked to available capability.
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In early 2017, North Korea stated it was readying a missile that could reach the United States. A month later, it conducted its first missile test, which was unsuccessful, just days after President Donald Trump moved into the White House. The regime conducted six more missile or nuclear tests in roughly five months' time. The last was a single intercontinental ballistic missile test in November.
Shanahan in December signed a directive to stop a 2008 policy approved by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates stipulating that, by the end of 2018, the Pentagon would "no longer use cluster munitions which, after arming, result in more than one percent unexploded ordnance."
The New York Times reported that the weapons' "dud rate" often approaches 20 percent when deployed in combat situations, making the environment extremely dangerous to friendly forces and civilians.
The Times noted the U.S. has roughly 2.2 million cluster munitions in the United States itself and 1.5 million overseas, with the majority in South Korea.
The Pentagon was tasked by President George W. Bush's administration to bring cluster bombs' failure rate under one percent or find an alternative. However, Defense Department spokesman Tom Crosson said last year the U.S. military's efforts to develop more reliable, and thus safer, cluster munitions that have a failure rate of one percent or less were unsuccessful, The Associated Press said at the time.
Shanahan confirmed that report Friday. "You're probably familiar with the fact that we've been working on a technology to eliminate the danger of cluster munitions, but the timing of that technology to eliminate the danger, and the need to backfill the shortfall in munitions, did not line up," he said.
It was not immediately clear whether the Pentagon is continuing efforts to improve the cluster bombs' reliability, or if the current stockpiles will remain unchanged.
Meanwhile, relations between the U.S. and North Korea have appeared to be on the mend in recent months, with Trump noting his blossoming relationship with Kim Jong Un.
"I was really being tough and so was he. And we would go back and forth. And then we fell in love, OK?" Trump said at a campaign rally Sept. 29. "No really. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they're great letters. And then we fell in love."