The United States confronted North Korea on Sunday over its latest missile test amid signs that time is running out to halt the rogue nation's headlong rush to build a nuclear weapon capable of reaching American cities.
The U.S. flew two B-1 bombers over South Korea in a show of force after North Korea again tested an intercontinental ballistic missile on Friday.
North Korea's latest missile test signaled that parts of the U.S. mainland, including Los Angeles and Chicago, may be in range of Pyongyang’s weapons.
Vice President Pence said Sunday that the U.S. and its allies plan to increase pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear program.
"The era of strategic patience is over," Pence said while in Estonia. "The president of the United States is leading a coalition of nations to bring pressure to bear until that time that North Korea will permanently abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile program.”
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The missile flew 2,300 miles into space and flew for about 45 minutes. If the missile was on a flatter trajectory, it could reach U.S. cities, according to David Wright, an analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and other experts.
Friday's missile test was North Korea's second test this month of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The launches are part of the North's intensified efforts to build a nuclear missile capable of reaching the United States.
"This was the year they decided to go all out," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un saw an opportunity to push ahead with the nuclear program as new governments in both South Korea and the United States settled in, he said.
“North Korea remains the most urgent threat to regional stability,” Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, Pacific Air Forces commander, said in a statement announcing Sunday's flyover of bombers.
Even before the latest missile test, U.S. officials expressed heightened concerns about North Korea's intensified nuclear weapons program. Gen. Mark Milley, the Army's chief of staff, said there was still time to use diplomacy to find a solution to the crisis, but "time is running out."
"North Korea is extremely dangerous, and it gets more dangerous as time goes by,” he said in a speech Thursday at the National Press Club.
Kim Jong Dae, a member of South Korea's National Assembly and a defense expert, said North Korea is making rapid progress on its nuclear program but isn't yet able to miniaturize a warhead to fit on an ICBM and hasn't perfected the technology so a warhead can re-enter the atmosphere without burning up.
"The reliability (of North Korea's missiles) has increased remarkably,” he said.
Estimates vary on when North Korea will be able to reach U.S. cities with a nuclear warhead. A new estimate from the Defense Intelligence Agency said the country could place a nuclear warhead on an ICBM by next year, The Washington Post reported.
Kim Jong Dae estimated it will be "within three years."
The options for stopping North Korea's nuclear ambitions are limited. President Trump has expressed frustration about China's reluctance to place pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear program. North Korea's economy depends heavily on China.
"I am very disappointed in China," Trump said in a pair of tweets Saturday. "Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk, We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem
U.S. military action risks triggering a devastating war with countless casualties. North Korea has an array of missiles and conventional artillery pointing at Seoul, only about 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone.
“A war on the Korean Peninsula would be terrible," Milley said. "However, a nuclear weapon detonating in Los Angeles would be terrible."
"We are at a point in time where choices are going to have to be made one way or the other," he said.
Friday's test touched off a variety of responses, in addition to the flyover of U.S. bombers.
South Korea said it will hold talks with the United States about increasing the limits on the size of warheads on its own missiles. A current treaty between South Korea and the United States limits the size of the warheads that South Korea can place on missiles.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency said it conducted a test of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in Alaska by launching a ballistic missile over the Pacific Ocean.
The test missile was fired by a U.S. Air Force C-17 plane and was successfully intercepted, the agency said.