North Korea "will move closer" to developing a long-range nuclear missile that can strike the US, according to the Pentagon's latest assessment.
In a report to Congress released Thursday, the US Defense Department said that North Korea's recent advances in missile technology, as showcased at the height of its standoff with South Korea, were "in line with North Korea's stated objective of being able to strike the US homeland."
"North Korea will move closer to this goal, as well as increase the threat it poses to US forces and allies in the region, if it continues testing and devoting scarce regime resources to these programs," the report said.
The Pentagon has no reason to expect that North Korea will halt its costly and controversial nuclear tests or rocket launches, the report said, since Kim Jong Un's regime appears to believe that building up a nuclear arsenal will protect it from outside attack and help undermine South Korea's alliance with the US.
The Pentagon did not predict when North Korea might be capable of striking the US.
Certain crucial steps remain to be completed, it noted, including the testing of a re-entry vehicle necessary for a warhead to get back inside the Earth's atmosphere and hit a target.
The report was a repeat of earlier concerns that the Defense Department has been peddling ever since the United Nations expanded its third round of sanctions against Pyongyang in early February.
At a defense budget hearing in March, a Republican Congressman revealed a portion of a classified Pentagon document suggesting that North Korea had mastered the technology to place a small nuclear warhead of the tip of a missile.
The finding led to some controversy in the government, and revealed a number of schisms in the intelligence community.
At the hawkish end of the spectrum was the Pentagon's intelligence arm, the Defense Intelligence Agency, while the State Department appeared to be on the other side with some doubts. The White House was somewhere in the middle, with Obama stating in an NBC interview that he did not believe North Korea had achieved that level yet.
The current finding will probably fall under the same spectrum. There is fierce disagreement within the diplomatic and intelligence community over how soon North Korea – if ever – North Korea will reach the ability to strike the continental US.
So far, the White House has not commented on the latest report.
Geoffrey Cain contributed to this story from Seoul, South Korea.