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(LEAD) U.S. says N. Korea doesn't have capability yet to tip missile with nuclear warhead

All News 05:44 January 04, 2017

(ATTN: UPDATES in paras 1-4 with State Department briefing; CHANGES headline; ADDS photos)
By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, Jan. 3 (Yonhap) -- North Korea is not yet believed to have mastered the capability of putting a nuclear warhead atop ballistic missiles, the State Department said Tuesday, after Pyongyang threatened it's close to test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile.

"We do continue to believe that he continues to pursue both nuclear and ballistic missile technologies," State Department spokesman John Kirby said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. "We do not believe that he at this point in time has the capability to tip one of these with a nuclear warhead. That's as far as I'm going to go in terms of assessing."

Kim said in his New Year's address that the communist nation has reached the final stage of preparations to test-fire an ICBM. It was widely seen as a thinly veiled threat that Pyongyang is close to developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the continental U.S.

The threat sparked security concerns in the U.S., even leading U.S. President-elect Donald Trump to send a tweet: "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!"

(LEAD) U.S. says N. Korea doesn't have capability yet to tip missile with nuclear warhead - 1

The White House said the U.S. is fully capable of defending against North Korean missiles.

"For years, the United States has, at the direction of the commander in chief, President Obama, has increased the defenses that are deployed in the Pacific region to protect the American people from this threat," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at a regular briefing.

"I can confirm once again that the United States military does believe it has the capacity to protect the American people from the threat that's emanating from North Korea," he said.

Kim made the remark about test-firing an ICBM in his New Year's address on Sunday.

It was unclear what Trump's message means exactly, whether it represents his assessment of the North's weapons capabilities based on intelligence, or if it means he's going to do something to prevent the communist nation from acquiring those capabilities.

Still, it showed Trump recognizes the issue as a priority.

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The North's threat also dominated Tuesday's briefing at the Pentagon, with reporters even asking if the U.S. is willing to shoot it down if the North test-launches an ICBM, and whether the U.S. is willing to take out a North Korean capability in a preemptive fashion.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook stressed the U.S. is capable of defending itself.

"I'm not going to hypothesize on what could happen in the future," Cook said in response to a question if the U.S. is willing to shoot down a North Korean missile. "But we remain confident in our ballistic missile defense and in our defense of our allies and our defense of the homeland."

The U.S. Pacific Fleet has a number of ships equipped with the Aegis ballistic missile defense system that has undergone successful testing off Barking Sands, Hawaii.

Cook also said the U.S. is working hard to deploy the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea "as quickly and efficiently as possible."

"We'll do everything we can working with the South Koreans to do that. We think it's an important part of our broader missile defense efforts in support of our ally and in support of the region as well," he said.

He also rejected China's opposition to the deployment.

"There's no reason for China to oppose that system. This is a defensive system. And there's no reason for anyone in the region to have concern about that, other than, perhaps, North Korea," he said.

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