The Defense Intelligence Agency now estimates that North Korea could have an ICBM with a nuclear warhead capable of hitting the U.S. mainland by next year, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
The estimate by the DIA significantly shortened the timeframe for when North Korea could develop the technology for miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to fit atop an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and survive re-entry into the atmosphere. Previous estimates said that North Korea was at least three years away from having the capability.
The new confidential assessment by the DIA followed the July 4 missile test that North Korea claimed was an ICBM. U.S. Pacific Command initially said the missile appeared to be of intermediate range but later concluded that it had the range of an ICBM capable of hitting Alaska.
The DIA's conclusion was that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be able to produce a "reliable, nuclear-capable ICBM" program sometime in 2018, the Washington Post report said.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) declined comment on the DIA assessment, but Scott Bray, ODNI's national intelligence manager for East Asia, issued a statement.
He said that "North Korea's recent test of an intercontinental range ballistic missile -- which was not a surprise to the intelligence community -- is one of the milestones that we have expected would help refine our timeline and judgments on the threats that Kim Jong-un poses to the continental United States."
"This test, and its impact on our assessments, highlight the threat that North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs pose to the United States, to our allies in the region, and to the whole world. The intelligence community is closely monitoring the expanding threat from North Korea," Bray said.
On his visit to Poland earlier this month, President Donald Trump pledged to confront North Korea "very strongly" to stop its missile and nuclear advances.
Last weekend, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said the U.S. might have to face the possibility of the "horrific" loss of life in a war on the Korean peninsula to stop a nuclear attack on the U.S.
At the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado last weekend, Dunford agreed with the think tanks that the carnage from war on the Korean peninsula would be "unimaginable," but what was more unimaginable to him would be to allow the regime of Kim Jong-un to destroy a U.S. city with a nuclear weapon.
Dunford and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have warned before of the devastation North Korea could inflict on the 25 million people in the greater Seoul area with more than 4,000 artillery tubes and rocket launchers arrayed along the DMZ, but Dunford put it in starker terms at Aspen when asked about the possibility of a pre-emptive strike to eliminate the nuclear threat.
"Many people have talked about military options with words like 'unimaginable,'" he said. "I would probably shift that slightly and say it would be horrific and it would be a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes."
He said that he meant "anyone who's been alive since world War II has never seen the loss of life that could occur if there's a conflict on the Korean peninsula."
"But as I've told my counterparts, both friend and foe, it is not unimaginable to have military options to respond to North Korean capability," Dunford said.
"What's unimaginable to me is allowing a capability that would allow a nuclear weapon to land in Denver, Colo. That's unimaginable to me. So my job will be to develop military options to make sure that doesn't happen," Dunford said.
However, Dunford said the first course of action for the U.S. was to rely on increased diplomatic and economic pressure to rein in North Korea's nuclear ambitions.