(CNN) — As tensions continue to ratchet up with North Korea, CNN has learned that the US is considering shooting down a North Korean ballistic missile even if it does not directly threaten the US or its allies.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Defense Secretary James Mattis said North Korea is “intentionally doing provocations that seem to press against the envelope for just how far can they push without going over some kind of a line in their minds that would make them vulnerable.”
An official directly familiar with options planning within the Trump administration told CNN the question that now needs to be answered is whether North Korea’s missile program has progressed to the level of being such an inherent threat that the Pentagon would recommend targeting a missile even if its trajectory did not indicate it would hit the US or its allies. The official declined to speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The discussion of whether to shoot down a North Korean missile comes as US intelligence has assessed that North Korea’s KN-17 (Hwasong 12) intermediate range ballistic missile has proven so successful in recent flight tests that Pyongyang now counts on it as part of its strategic deterrence against the US, according to a US official familiar with the latest intelligence analysis. Because the KN-17 appears to be successful, the official says the US has assessed that it is likely North Korea will turn back to additional testing of the KN-20 (aka Hwasong 14) intercontinental ballistic missile to see if they can improve its performance.
While US officials have long said the military maintains a full range of options for dealing with North Korea, the notion of shooting down a missile has largely centered on conducting an operation if the missile were to directly threaten the US or its allies. There has been particular concern since Kim Jong Un recently threatened the US territory of Guam.
On July 4, North Korea conducted its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which it claims could reach “anywhere in the world” and conducted a second test on July 28.
The idea of shooting down a missile even if it is not a direct threat is not new. But with two recently launched North Korean missiles flying over northern Japan, the potential for having to consider a shoot-down without a direct threat remains very real, according to one senior defense official.
President Donald Trump, while addressing the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday, warned Kim Jong Un that he would not survive an attack by the United States: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
Members of the administration have repeatedly emphasized that a range of military options are on the table and Mattis said Monday that the US possess military options that would not put Seoul at risk of a North Korean counterattack with the potential to kill tens of thousands of civilians.
Asked at an off-camera briefing at the Pentagon if there are military options that would not put Seoul at “grave risk?” He answered: “Yes there are, but I will not go into details.”
Mattis would not clarify if the options he was referring to are kinetic- meaning strikes using conventional weapons.
The Pentagon is looking at potential covert cyberattack options. But other non-kinetic options could include a show of force in the air or on land in the region or increasing the US military presence in the area by deploying more ships or troops.
He did confirm that he had discussed the option of putting tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, an idea rejected by South Korea’s President last week. Several Pentagon officials say Mattis was not signaling that tactical nuclear weapons are likely to be placed in South Korea.
And the situation remains tense with Mattis stating: “I believe that there is always the potential for miscalculation by the DPRK leader.”