The Pentagon on Wednesday said the credibility of North Korea's newest intercontinental ballistic missile is low, as the weapon has not yet been tested.
In a congressionally mandated update on the security situation with North Korea, the Defense Department noted that the KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile, which Pyongyang has begun displaying at military parades, should "be capable of reaching much of the continental United States" -- but only if it is successfully designed and developed.
"ICBMs are extremely complex systems that require multiple flight tests to identify and correct design or manufacturing defects, and the Hwasong-13 [KN-08] has not been flight-tested," the Pentagon noted in an unclassified version of the report. "Without flight tests, its current reliability as a weapon system would be low."
Not much is known about the new missile's actual capabilities. Top U.S. military officials have warned repeatedly of the threat it poses to the United States and these statements tend to recirculate widely among the circle of international observers who follow North Korea's missile and nuclear activities.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last March cited the KN-08 in detailing the Pentagon's decision to procure 14 additional long-range missile interceptors for placement in Alaska in 2017. Those missile-defense plans are proceeding despite serious technical challenges in interceptor performance, and in the absence of any North Korean flight-test of the KN-08.
Some independent experts have noted that the KN-08s seen in 2012 North Korean military parades had obvious design flaws, though those same analysts acknowledged that versions seen on display last year appeared more realistic and better designed.
North Korea is assessed to be almost done building launch facilities that could be used to test the KN-08 and its older strategic missile cousin, the Taepodong 2, which had its first successful flight trial in December 2012.
"North Korea will seek to continue to develop and test-launch missiles, including the TD-2 ICBM/SLV [Taepodong 2 missiles configured as space launch vehicles]," the Defense Department said in its report.
The total number of launchers for the Taepodong 2 is unknown though North Korea is estimated to have at least six launchers for the KN-08, according to the report. Both missiles are estimated to have ranges exceeding 3,400 miles.
"North Korea will continue using and improving the TD-2, which could reach the United States with a nuclear payload if developed as an ICBM," the department said.