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US says ready to defend against North Korean nuclear threat

A video grab from KCNA shows the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket launching at the North Korea's West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control centre in Cholsan county, North Pyongan province in this file video released by KCNA in Pyongyang Dec 13, 2012.

[WASHINGTON] The US government believes North Korea has the capability to launch a nuclear weapon against the US homeland and stands ready to defend against any such attacks, a high-level US military official said on Wednesday.

Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of US Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defence Command, said he agreed with US intelligence assessments that North Korea had nuclear weapons, as well as the ability to miniaturise them and put them on a rocket that could reach the United States. "We assess that they have the capability to reach the homeland with a nuclear weapon from a rocket," Adm Gortney told an event hosted by the Atlantic Council think tank.

Adm Gortney said it was very difficult to predict the behaviour of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un but the US military was prepared to respond if he were to use a nuclear weapon. "We're ready for him, and we're ready 24 hours a day if he should be dumb enough to shoot something at us," Adm Gortney said. "I'm pretty confident that we're going to knock down the numbers that are going to be shot."

North Korea's space agency said last month Pyongyang was building a new satellite and readying it for launch, with any use of a long-range rocket suggesting that the secretive state has made advances developing a ballistic missile.

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North Korea says its rocket launches are part of a legitimate space programme aimed at putting satellites into orbit. It has in the past conducted missile tests in defiance of international warnings and sanctions.

The US Missile Defence Agency said in March North Korea could achieve the ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile this year.

On Wednesday, Adm Gortney said the US military was investing to modernise its current missile defence system, add new sensors and radars to better identify potential missile launches, and drive down the cost of defending against such attacks.

He warned that the failure of the US Congress to pass a budget for fiscal year 2016, or a resumption of mandatory budget cuts, could jeopardise the funding needed for such efforts.