TOKYO — North Korea has taken a key step toward its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the mainland United States, analysts said Friday after Kim Jong Un ordered yet another nuclear test.
The test, which Pyongyang said was a "nuclear warhead explosion," appeared to be North Korea's biggest yet.
"It's a clear indication of progress towards developing a miniaturized nuclear warhead for North Korea's ballistic missiles," said Alison Evans, a North Korea analyst at IHS Markit, a consultancy. "We estimate that North Korea has an inventory of 15 or 20 nuclear weapons and that they could be put on a truck or a short-range missile. But what North Korea is aiming for is to put them on an intercontinental ballistic missile."
North Korea was officially founded 68 years ago Friday — the day of the nuclear test — with opposition to the United States as its raison d'etre. Its propaganda lauds the protection the Kim family has provided from the "hostile" Americans.
But the country has dramatically accelerated its nuclear and missile programs since Kim Jong Un became North Korea's third-generation leader almost five years ago, conducting three of its five nuclear tests in that time.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye said Friday's detonation was an act of "fanatic recklessness." President Barack Obama condemned the test and said the United States would never accept the country as a nuclear power. The test also was strongly condemned by the U.N. Security Council, which promised new measures against North Korea.
It is impossible to verify North Korea's claim on Friday to have mastered the technology to fit warheads to missiles. But there is also an increasing assumption among military officials in South Korea and the United States that it's only a matter of time until North Korea gets there.
"Twenty years ago, the idea of North Korea being able to deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. seemed far-fetched," said Sharon Squassoni, director of the proliferation prevention program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They're not there yet, but with each round of tests, they inch a little bit closer."