North Korea may complete its nuclear weapons program by next year despite a more than two-month lull in activity, a senior government official said Tuesday.
South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon acknowledged that many experts say the North still needs several years to master the technology needed for an operational intercontinental ballistic missile that could deliver a warhead.
“But they are developing their nuclear weapons at a faster-than-expected pace and we cannot rule out the possibility that North Korea may declare the completion of its nuclear program in 2018,” Cho told reporters at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
He said that would coincide with a key year for the communist state as it marks its 70th anniversary.
Cho’s comments came after Japanese media quoted sources as saying the government has intercepted radio signals suggesting that North Korea may be preparing to launch a ballistic missile, possibly within a few days.
That would end a period of relative calm since the North has not conducted a nuclear or missile test since Sept. 15, when it sent a projectile soaring over Japan.
When asked about the reports, U.S. and South Korean military officials said they were monitoring the situation closely.
“The [South Korea] and U.S. alliance remains strong and capable of countering any North Korean provocations or attacks,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning told reporters in Washington.
North Korea has paused its nuclear and missile testing program following a months-long period of steady launches and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.
Tensions spiked further as President Donald Trump engaged in a war of words with the North, warning he would unleash “fire and fury” and “totally destroy” the country if it threatens the United States or its allies.
The U.S. administration also redesignated Pyongyang as a state sponsor of terrorism on Nov. 20, paving the way for stronger sanctions. The communist state has been known to respond to such punishments with high-profile provocations.
South Korea’s unification minister welcomed what he called “noteworthy movements” but said the North has apparently continued to test missile engines and fuel.
Cho offered four possible explanations for the lull, saying North Korean military activity is traditionally lower in the winter.
The North may need more time to perfect its re-entry technology “so that they can demonstrate to the whole world that they have a complete package,” he said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un also may feel pressure to show promised economic improvement after demonstrating rapid progress in the nuclear weapons program.
Finally, Cho said the North may be deterred by an increase in U.S. shows of force with strategic assets on the divided peninsula. Cho reiterated that President Moon Jae-in’s administration’s offer for engagement and talks with the North still stands.
“If North Korea stops its provocations for a certain period of time, I think it could set the tone … to enter dialogue with North Korea,” Cho said.
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