The U.S. military would try to shoot down any North Korean missile deemed a threat to the country or its allies, the Pentagon's top civilian said.
"If it were coming -- if it were threatening to us, yes," Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said on Sunday in response to a question from moderator Chuck Todd on NBC's "Meet the Press" show. "That is, if it's predicted to impact [the U.S. or] one of our friends or allies -- yes, we would shoot it down."
The secretary seemed to suggest, however, the U.S. wouldn't target a test launch of a missile into the ocean.
"We only would shoot them down, and that is use an interceptive for that purpose, if it was threatening," he said. "That is, if it were coming toward our territory or the territory of our friends and allies."
Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have escalated over the past year amid the North's increasing test of nuclear devices and ballistic missiles under the regime of Kim Jong-Un. In 2016 alone, North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb, submarine-launched ballistic missile, among other weapons in a spate of provocative demonstrations. It's working to develop a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile by 2018, officials have said.
Also Sunday, the regime signaled it was prepared to launch an ICBM "anytime and anywhere determined by the supreme headquarters," according to an unidentified spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.
The official said the country is developing the weapon "to cope with the ever more undisguised nuclear war threat from the U.S.," according to a statement published on the website of the state-run North Korean Central News Agency, or KNCA.
The comments came a week after President-elect Donald 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!" While Trump has described the proliferation of nuclear weapons as a threat to national security, he has also said the U.S. would "outmatch" rivals in a nuclear arms race.
North Korean Missiles
The regime has multiple types of missiles based on Russian designs in its inventory.
Its intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Musudan BM-25, has a range of at least 4,000 kilometers. It has two types of ICBMs: the KN-08/14, which can fly at least 8,000 kilometers, and the larger Taepodong-2/UNHA-3, a two- or three-stage vehicle that has a range of at least 10,000 kilometers and has been use to launch satellites, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Some officials say the KN-14, a newer type of truck-launched ICBM, can reach as far as 12,000 kilometers -- a distance that stretches to Florida. The new missile was on display in a military parade in October 2015 in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Its range and mobility make the vehicle particularly noteworthy to U.S. intelligence officials and analysts.
"The mobile missiles are going to be on trucks -- trucks, incidentally, supplied to them by the Chinese, in some cases -- and it's those mobile launchers that for military purposes is something that would be a lot harder to target before launch because you have to find it," Tom Karako, a senior fellow at CSIS and director of the organization's Missile Defense Project, said on Monday in a telephone interview with Military.com.
"If you're North Korea and you want to do a test -- not an attack, but a test -- you're not going to aim it at the U.S.," he said. "You're going to aim it in some other direction," probably southward, he said.
Missile Defense Technology
The U.S. and its allies have multiple types of technology designed to target such a projectile.
The Pentagon's arsenal alone includes underground interceptors in Alaska and California as part of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System for long-range ICBMs, ship-based SM-3 missiles aboard Navy cruisers and destroyers equipped with the Aegis combat system for intermediate-range ballistic missiles, truck-mounted missile batteries as part of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system for medium-range ballistic missiles and truck-mounted PAC-3 missiles for short-range ballistic missiles.
In the U.S., lawmakers have previously raised concerns over the GMD's mixed record of hitting targets, but the program saw a successful intercept in 2014 and has invested in a redesigned kill vehicle that sits atop the interceptor to make it more effective.
Abroad, the U.S. plans to deploy a THAAD battery in South Korea, which is also mulling adding SM-3 missiles to its destroyers to boost missile defenses; and Japan is also considering fielding THAAD or the land-based Aegis Ashore system, as well as adding more advanced SM-3 missiles to its ships.
"The North Korea missile problem is broad and deep," Karako said, "and this week we're focused on the ICBM piece of it."