An official directly familiar with options planning within the Trump administration told CNN the question that now needs to be answered is whether North Korea's missile program has progressed to the level of being such an inherent threat that the Pentagon would recommend targeting a missile even if its trajectory did not indicate it would hit the US or its allies. The official declined to speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The discussion of whether to shoot down a North Korean missile comes as US intelligence has assessed that North Korea's KN-17 (Hwasong 12) intermediate range ballistic missile has proven so successful in recent flight tests that Pyongyang now counts on it as part of its strategic deterrence against the US, according to a US official familiar with the latest intelligence analysis. Because the KN-17 appears to be successful, the official says the US has assessed that it is likely North Korea will turn back to additional testing of the KN-20 (aka Hwasong 14) intercontinental ballistic missile to see if they can improve its performance.
While US officials have long said the military maintains a full range of options for dealing with North Korea, the notion of shooting down a missile has largely centered on conducting an operation if the missile were to directly threaten the US or its allies. There has been particular concern since Kim Jong Un recently threatened the US territory of Guam.
On July 4, North Korea conducted its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which it claims could reach "anywhere in the world" and conducted a second test on July 28.
The idea of shooting down a missile even if it is not a direct threat is not new. But with two recently launched North Korean missiles flying over northern Japan, the potential for having to consider a shoot-down without a direct threat remains very real, according to one senior defense official.
President Donald Trump, while addressing the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday, warned Kim Jong Un that he would not survive an attack by the United States: "The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime."
Members of the administration have repeatedly emphasized that a range of military options are on the table and Mattis said Monday that the US possess military options that would not put Seoul at risk of a North Korean counterattack with the potential to kill tens of thousands of civilians.
President Trump signed an executive order Thursday slapping new travel and economic sanctions on North Korea, as the administration seeks to pressure Kim Jong Un in a showdown over the North Korean leader’s nuclear program.
Trump signed the order at the United Nations, where he expressed frustration that the international coalition had not done enough to stand up to Kim’s provocations. Earlier this week, the president vowed to “totally destroy” North Korea if it continued along the nuclear path.
Several U.S. bombers and fighter jet escorts flew in international waters off North Korea's coast on Saturday as a display of "resolve" against the nation's "reckless" behavior, the Pentagon announced.
The mission included several B-1B bombers launched from the U.S. Pacific island territory of Guam, as well as fighter escorts launched from Okinawa, Japan.
The Department of Defense (DOD) said the mission was the furthest north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that any U.S. military aircraft have flown in more than a dozen years.
"This is the farthest north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century, underscoring the seriousness with which we take the DPRK’s reckless behavior," DOD spokeswoman Dana White said.
In a statement written in the first person, published on the front pages of state newspapers and read on national television, Mr. Kim called Mr. Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” who had “denied the existence of and insulted me and my country in front of the eyes of the world.” Mr. Kim vowed to take the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”
In a country where the leader is essentially portrayed as a god, Mr. Kim’s decision to respond personally to Mr. Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly and pledge reprisals escalated the standoff over the North’s nuclear program in a way that neither he nor his predecessors had done before.
Though the statement made no mention of nuclear weapons, in the context of a political system built on a cult of personality, Mr. Kim’s intervention appeared to sharply reduce the possibility that his government might retreat or compromise, even in the face of war.
Mr. Kim condemned Mr. Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea if the United States is forced to defend itself, and he declared that it had “convinced me, rather than frightening or stopping me, that the path I chose is correct and that it is the one I have to follow to the last.”
Shortly after Mr. Kim’s statement was released, his foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, delivered prepared remarks to reporters outside his hotel in New York, saying it was up to Mr. Kim to decide what to do, but that North Korea might conduct the “biggest ever hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific.”
Mr. Ri could not have made such an alarming comment without approval from Mr. Kim, although some analysts question whether North Korea has the technology or political daring to conduct an atmospheric nuclear test, something the world has not seen for decades.