WASHINGTON– The United States is “significantly” more likely to strike down a North Korean missile in the wake of the regime’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test to date, a former State Department official said Monday.
Alan Romberg, who served in various capacities dealing with East Asia through the 1990s, made the observation after Pyongyang on Sunday detonated what it said was an H-bomb ready for delivery on a long-range missile.
If the claim is true, it would mean that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has moved closer to acquiring the capability to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon.
“While it would require careful consideration of the consequences, I believe that this latest test, following on the two ICBM tests, significantly raises the possibility that the U.S. might seek to shoot down a North Korean missile heading in a direction that could be seen as threatening to U.S. territory or the territory of one of its allies,” Romberg said in a written interview with Yonhap News Agency.
He was referencing the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July, which analysts said theoretically put cities like Chicago and Los Angeles within range. Tensions reached new levels as U.S. President Donald Trump responded with threats to unleash “fire and fury” on Pyongyang, and the Kim regime hit back with threats to lob missiles toward the U.S. territory of Guam.
Romberg, who now works as director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, said it is safe to assume North Korea will ultimately succeed in developing a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile if it hasn’t yet.
“Whether within a year or two or perhaps over a somewhat longer time frame, what I think we need to understand is that the North has no intention of allowing itself to be put off course before it has acquired a deliverable intercontinental nuclear attack capability,” he said.
Sanctions have not stopped Pyongyang yet, but tougher sanctions that are applied more rigorously could still be effective.
“China seemed much more upset about this test than anything else to date,” Romberg noted. “Whether that means Beijing will apply more sanctions with greater intensity remains to be seen. However, I wouldn’t rule that out.”
China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, has come under constant pressure from the U.S. to rein in its wayward neighbor. But Beijing has been reluctant to push Pyongyang too hard out of concern such action could spark instability in the North and lead to the emergence of a unified, U.S.-allied Korea on its border.
Romberg said the U.S. might expand so-called secondary sanctions against Chinese entities to block them from accessing the U.S. financial system if they conduct business with Pyongyang.
“That will doubtless strain Sino-American relations to some extent but given (China’s) concern over what North Korea is doing, that strain may be less than it would have been before,” he said.
On Trump’s reported plans to terminate the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, Romberg offered a sharp rebuke.
“Pulling out of the KORUS FTA would be a foolish and self-defeating action in any case. But especially at a moment when it is obvious that strong alliance solidarity is crucial in the face of North Korean provocations, it would be an act going beyond any level of rationality,” he said.
“That isn’t to say that the KORUS FTA doesn’t need fixing. It does. And Seoul needs to acknowledge that fact and face up to the need to make necessary adjustments, even if they are in some cases painful. But Mr. Trump needs to give South Korea the political space to do this in a framework of collaboration, not confrontation.”
Romberg also took a swipe at Trump for slamming South Korea on Twitter for “finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work.”
“Using the North Korean test to say to the South, ‘We told you so’ about the need to be tough neither fits alliance requirements or gives due recognition to a shift in (South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s) willingness to bolster ROK defense efforts,” he said, referring to South Korea by the acronym of its official name, Republic of Korea.
“So whether on KORUS FTA or on other bilateral dealings, this is a moment for the U.S. and ROK to work together to strengthen our ties, not highlight our problems.”
Source: Yonhap News Agency