WASHINGTON - On the heels of the announcement that South Korea will increase the range of its missiles to include all of North Korea, North Korean leaders lashed out with a stark reminder: The U.S. remains "within range of its missiles."
The hardline government said the agreement is a "product of another conspiracy of the master and the stooge" to "ignite a war" against the North.
The threat prompted concern in the U.S. intelligence community about whether North Korea has the capability to attack the U.S. mainland.
"On paper they do," says Joseph R. Detrani, recently retired director of the National Counter Proliferation Center in an exclusive interview with WTOP.
"North Korea's Taepodong -Two has the capability of reaching the U.S. mainland," he says.
That missile type has a range of more than 4,000 miles, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, which would put the outer limits of Alaska within range.
While the new threat has raised U.S. concerns, daily anxiety in South Korea about its unstable neighbor launching a missile at them, drove them to push the U.S. to reluctantly accept the deal.
The original U.S./South Korea agreement signed in 2001 allowed for missiles that could travel 300 kilometers (186 miles). The new agreement allows for missiles that travel 800 kilometers (500 miles).
"It would take them a few years to achieve that. The expected date is close to 2017," Detrani says.
"South Korea, and certainly the Lee Myung-bak government, maintained that as a sovereign nation, and given what North Korea is doing with their missile and nuclear programs, South Korea would need a greater capability," he adds.
During the Kim Jong Il regime, North Korea reacted angrily at U.S. and South Korean military exercises and agreements but, even though he's dead and his son Kim Jong Un now leads the country, that policy has not changed.
"I expect Pyongyang to use this and other false examples of 'U.S. imperialism' and 'hostile policy' and South Korea's hardline policy to provoke the South in the coming days and weeks," says Sung-Yoon Lee, the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation assistant professor of Korean Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
But Detrani says there is something more sinister to consider. He says the world is so focused on preventing Iran from building centrifuges as it leans toward developing a nuclear weapon that the focus on North Korea's nuclear program has faded.
He warns that "they (North Korea) are spinning centrifuges," and unlike Iran's comparatively new program, North Korea's is an established program.
Detrani finds North Korea's recent threat coupled with their capability "very disconcerting."
Lee warns North Korea, while quiet about its nuclear program, has likely continued working on it.
"All nuclear weapons-possessing states have constantly tried to improve and expand their nuclear arsenal. It would be shocking if North Korea has not," he says.
"I expect their uranium program -- the 'impressive' brand new facilities for which they showed (Stanford University scientist) Siegfried Hecker on Nov 12, 2010, the same day that Seoul was hosting the G20 Summit -- to have improved steadily over the last two years," Lee says.
He also says. "I expect NK to provoke Seoul and Washington with a weapons test sometime this year before the ROK presidential election on Dec 19."
U.S. special envoy Glyn Davies is in the region this week for joint talks on North Korea with Japan and South Korea.
There have been few diplomatic developments between the U.S. and North Korea since an agreement to exchange food aid for nuclear concessions collapsed in the spring.
The State Department says Davies will hold talks separately with Tokyo and Seoul to insure "close coordination" on North Korea issues.
Detrani was asked whether North Korea will launch a missile toward the U.S. and like others he's conflicted about the possibility.
"It's inconceivable. That would be a suicidal act. I don't think anyone would expect North Korea to do anything of that nature," he says.
But at the same time, Detrani says what he's learned during his decades as a top U.S. North Korea expert, suggests "if they say they have another launch, I think we have to accept them at their word. So I say, yes, it's likely they will have a missile launch."
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)